There has been a lot written recently about accountability, chiefly an excellent document compiled by the NAHT entitled “Improving School Accountability”. Its recommendations will surely be accepted by those duty-bound to improve a system which is in transition. The same system that has certainly helped some pupils though not enough, that’s helped a smattering of school leaders, but not many teachers.
And what about parents?
Yes, parents. That’s what it was all about wasn’t it? A rush of information and published data, from which parents could make a judgement about which school was right for little Delilah.
Want a more academic school? Just up to the top of the road, Mrs Polowski.
More pastoral and humanities-focused college?. Yep, across the park and turn left, Mr O’Meara.
Oh, you’re after a school with great sporting credentials? You’ll find it on the outskirts of town, Ms Blake.
Or a more STEM-focused academy? Ah, you’ll have to work that one out for yourselves, Mr and Mrs Fiorentino! (Get it?)
Of course, it hasn’t worked out that way, has it. Parents want ‘the best’ for their children, which usually means the school with the highest league table position or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grade. As a result, some schools are over-subscribed and others play catch-up, entrenching a ‘them and us’ culture, often in regions where greater collaboration is desperately required. The market just doesn’t work for education, a position so well argued in Fiona Millar’s book, ‘The Best for My Child’.
Now call me weird (my wife does frequently) but I have always felt that my primary duty was to my pupils, and then to my boss and colleagues. But after that, it was to the parents of the children who were in my class – they were my ‘accountable body’. Simplistic maybe, but I reckoned if they were happy and involved, I was doing a good job. I trusted the parents that the ambitions they had for their children chimed with my school’s aspirations and, by all working together, we’d give their offspring a decent start in life.
Back in 2002, as a young headteacher in a small school, the parents were a big part of my school development plan, and I always involved them in the life of the school. I was humble enough to listen to any feedback and act on any good suggestions. I became a better headteacher because of them.
What has happened now? Parents barely get a look in, especially within the MAT system. School leaders are under such pressure they hardly want to invite another level of immediate accountability from an unpredictable set of local constituents. As a result, excepting their increasingly rare Ofsted report, and the published information on the DfE website (most of it out of date and excessively complicated), the knowledge about their school can be patchy and confusing.
My pet hate is the information printed by local journalists, usually entitled ‘Best Schools’ Guide’ which is horribly misleading. I remember a parent telling me that such and such a school was good because ‘it had three stars int’ local paper.’ Is this what our work has been reduced to?
Parents should be at the heart of a well-run school system, and if, as seems likely, we are to ditch the current accountability paradigm, let’s go to a system where local intelligence is given due regard.
Now this is a bit subversive of course and I know many will not agree. But I’ve been a head for sixteen years now and I’ve met a lot of parents. Virtually all have been respectful of the ambitions of the school and the work of staff. Are we really saying that they cannot provide that support and challenge role successfully? Furthermore, as I argued in a previous blog inspired by Darren McGarvey’s amazing book, ‘Poverty Safari’, any community-centred change has to…be led by the community.
I’m giving it a go.
So this year, I’m asking parents to come closer with us on our journey. In the summer, I sent them a school self-evaluation summary giving them the honest truth about how we would measure against the current accountability judgements (worse than before). We’ve started an open forum for parents to oversee our new curriculum offer, shaping and moulding it with us. I want to go further, and allow parents to learn alongside their children wherever possible.
They will not be given a clipboard and asked to grade lessons, nor will they have unfettered access. Protocols are important. Nor will they duplicate the role of the governing body.
But they need to have more of a voice. If done well, that shared accountability at a local level should negate the need for the clunky, bureaucratic accountability that, over the past thirty years, has cost a lot of money and has led to perverse incentives.
Parenting is becoming tougher and lonelier. What better way to help them out by putting them at the heart of our schools’ development.