England Refines Accountability Reforms

By Lynn Olson — May 05, 2004 18 min read
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After a rapid rise, test scores for 11-year-olds have hit a plateau. One of the national teachers’ unions has threatened to boycott exams. And critics charge that high-stakes accountability has narrowed the curriculum.

Sound familiar? Perhaps. But the country where all that is occurring is England. For the past 16 years, Americans’ allies across the Atlantic have pursued a national education strategy that bears a striking resemblance to elements of the No Child Left Behind Act and to the test-based accountability systems in individual states.

Attendee at a National Union of Teachers conference.
Sandra Ward attends a conference of the National Union of Teachers, England’s largest teacher’s union. In 2004, delegates voted to keep campaigning against testing 7-year-olds.
—File photo by Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

As Tony Blair’s Labor government tries to reinvigorate that agenda and restore its momentum, the lessons learned here may prove a harbinger for the United States.

System Centralizes

Until the 1980s, the United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—had one of the most decentralized education systems in the world, according to Harry Torrance, a professor of education at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Local education authorities were responsible for providing education in their communities, but there were no generally agreed-upon curriculum goals nor any general system of assessment for primary schools. At the secondary level, national school-leaving exams taken at ages 16 and 18 determined which students qualified for further education or employment, but the tests were not primarily used to judge schools.

See Also...

Read the accompanying stories, “England Sets Sights on Secondary Schools,” and “The United Kingdom: An Educator’s Guide.”

See the accompanying chart, “Performance Plateau.”

All that changed when the Conservative government crafted the Education Reform Act of 1988, which mandates a national curriculum for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as national- curriculum tests at ages 7, 11, and 14. (Scotland, which has greater autonomy over its education system, has no prescribed national curriculum.)

The law also permitted schools in England, with the consent of a majority of parents, to secede from the local education authority and receive funding directly from the national government. (Those “grant maintained” schools have since been reabsorbed into their local authorities.)

As envisioned by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the changes would combine much greater control from the central government with the use of market forces to improve schools by permitting parents to choose among schools, in part on the basis of test results.

The national government released the first set of results in 1992, and the information appeared in newspapers in the form of school rankings, or “league tables.” That same year, the government also set up the Office for Standards in Education, or OFSTED, which regularly inspects schools and produces high-stakes reports on their performance that are published in print and online.

When the Labor government came to power in 1997, it built on that framework, pursuing a strategy that embraces both pressure and support for individual schools. Most notably, the government has provided about 5 percent real growth in education spending, over and above the rate of inflation, every year since. In return, it has demanded results: national achievement targets that help determine goals for individual schools and the local education authorities, or LEAs.

“No government would spend this much money without demanding something in return,” observed Michael Barber, the head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, which was formed in 2001 to help ensure that the government meets its targeted outcomes in education and other public services. Mr. Barber, who formerly directed the standards and effectiveness unit in the Department for Education and Skills, was one of the principal architects of Prime Minister Blair’s education strategy.

“The accountability system,” Mr. Barber said, “is the way we prove, collectively, to the public that the system is improving.”

In a heady political moment, the government pledged that 80 percent of 11-year-olds would pass national English tests by 2002—achieving a “level 4" or higher on the exams—and that 75 percent would pass national math exams.

The government also launched national literacy and numeracy strategies for primary schools that included detailed teaching programs for ages 5 to 11, extensive professional development for teachers, and extra help for children who fell behind. It also further devolved budgetary decisions to individual schools.

Michael Fullan, dean emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, in Canada, evaluated the national literacy and numeracy strategies for the British government. He describes them as “the most ambitious large-scale educational reform initiative in the world,” designed to change teaching practice and improve pupil performance in all of England’s nearly 20,000 primary schools. In 2000, the government launched a similar strategy for ages 11 to 14, aimed at England’s 3,500 secondary schools.

Last year, for the first time, the government produced performance tables for every primary and secondary school in England, based on how much progress schools made with individual students, in addition to publishing raw test results. (“Value Lessons,” this issue.)

“This is a government committed to education, and they sometimes drive you up the wall,” said Alan Steer, the head teacher of the 1,360-student Seven Kings High School in east London. Still, he added: “In all my 34 years of being a teacher, they’re actually the only government I can honestly say has made education a national priority. And that’s wonderful. It’s hugely beneficial.”

‘Moment of Truth’

From 1997 to 2000, those efforts appeared to be working. In 2000, 75 percent of 11-year-olds reached the expected level 4 in English, up from just 57 percent in 1996, before Mr. Blair took office. In mathematics, the figure jumped from 54 percent to 73 percent. Moreover, some of England’s most disadvantaged schools and local education authorities made the greatest gains.

“So we got something quite rare,” said Mr. Barber, “which is, across a whole system, to get rising average standards and a narrowing of the [achievement] gap.”

But since 2000, progress for 11-year-olds has hit a standstill, although test scores for 14-year-olds have continued a slow, steady drift upward.

Trying to figure out the reasons for that plateau, and how to move off it, has become the driving force behind the government’s recent education initiatives.

“I would make no apology for what Michael et al. did in 1997,” said David Hopkins, a university academic who succeeded Mr. Barber as head of the standards and effectiveness unit at the national education department. “For the first time in 50 years, [primary] standards increased.”

In 1998, Mr. Hopkins noted, only two local education authorities had at least 75 percent of 11-year-olds at level 4 in English; by 2003, a majority did. “If there’s any justification for doing what Michael Barber and Tony Blair did, it’s that, in my mind,” he said. “It has to be a stunning achievement.”

“But,” added the amiable professor, who has spent 25 years working on school improvement issues, “and this is a big but, that was only the first stage in a long-term, large-scale reform. And one of the reasons why we’ve stalled is that more of the same will not work.”

Few deny that the government’s efforts to date have had an impact. Although the strategies for primary school have been criticized by some as too prescriptive and centralized, particularly in their initial version, most admit that standards and teaching in the early grades have improved.

“Overall, I think it dragged up the bottom layer,” said Susan Scarsbrook, the head teacher of Sudbourne Primary School in south London.

But it’s harder to gauge the effects on achievement. Critics point out that much of the increase in English and math scores at age 11 occurred before the introduction of the literacy strategy in 1998 and the numeracy strategy in 1999. Moreover, the sharpest gains have been in science, where the government had no intervention plan. Some studies also suggest that the gains in literacy, in particular, have been overstated.

“When you ask for corroborating evidence for rising standards, you see something sort of like the Texas miracle,” asserted Peter Tymms, a professor of education at the University of Durham, referring to test-score increases in the Longhorn State, which have been the subject of skeptical analyses by some U.S. researchers. He compared students’ results on national exams with those on a half-hour reading test also taken by 11-year-olds in 155 British schools between 1995 and 1999, and found that while the former rose rapidly, the latter remained relatively stable.

A government-commissioned report that examined the comparability of national tests between 1996 and 2001 also questioned the extent of the improvements in reading, based on giving comparable groups of children in Northern Ireland present and past versions of the exams. While the report supported the modest test-score gains at age 14, and the substantial improvement in science and math scores at 11, it concluded that a “significant proportion” of the jump in reading results for 11-year-olds “may have arisen from variation in test standards.”

For his part, Mr. Barber points to the fact that English 10-year-olds scored third in a 35-nation study of reading achievement released last year as proof that the gains are real.

Far more contentious than the literacy and numeracy strategies has been the impact of testing, school league tables, and performance targets.

“There’s a big debate over here about the league tables, which were introduced in the early 1990s, and I’m quite ambivalent about that,” acknowledged Mr. Steer of Seven Kings secondary school. “It’s terribly crude, and sometimes it’s quite unfair,” he said, noting that the raw scores compare schools with vastly different student populations and circumstances.

“The positive side is, it was a moment of truth,” he added. “It forced schools to raise the profile on achievement and to contemplate what their basic function was, which is helping children learn and achieve, in a way they’d never done before.”

When Mr. Steer began as a head teacher in the 1980s, he recalled, “I couldn’t get hold of comparative data on my school’s performance with others’. It wasn’t something that you did. It was considered an unprofessional action.”

But national tests, tables, and targets also have had some unintended, negative consequences. In particular, critics charge, they have encouraged schools to focus their efforts on those students just below the bar—a level 4 at age 11, and a grade of C on the General Certificate of Secondary Education exams at age 16.

In a recent study of more than a dozen local education authorities and 50 schools, for example, researchers at Cambridge University found that 82 percent of head teachers acknowledged the regular use of “practice” tests in classes for students at age 11. And 74 percent provided “booster” classes to help children at or near the bar. A majority also concentrated their more experienced teachers in classes for 11-year-olds and reduced the scope of the curriculum to focus on what’s tested.

“In the primary schools, in particular, there’s been a very definite narrowing of the curriculum,” said John M. Gray, a professor of education at Cambridge and a co-author of the study. “I think the government agrees with that,” he added, noting that a strategy paper on primary schools, published by the government last May, carried the title “Excellence and Enjoyment.” It talked of the need for schools to take a fresh look at the curriculum and offer more enriched experiences.

In his most recent annual report to Parliament, David Bell, Her Majesty’s chief school inspector, said that the gap in standards and quality between English, math, and science and other subjects had widened. “We cannot afford, and our children do not deserve, a two-tier curriculum,” he said.

Attempted Boycott

Such concerns, and the perceived stress on pupils, have led to growing pressure on the government to abolish national tests for 7-year-olds and end the publication of league tables based on raw results.

The National Union of Teachers, the biggest of England’s four teachers’ unions, threatened to boycott the exams last fall. It was forced to call off the boycott after failing to garner enough votes.

A survey of 30,500 teachers, conducted for the union, found more than eight in 10 believed that the tests were stressful to children, and more than half agreed the tests undermined professional judgment. While 90 percent said the tests diminished students’ access to a balanced curriculum, only 5 percent agreed that the tests raised standards. The vast majority also agreed that the national-curriculum tests placed an additional workload on teachers.

“I think it’s fair to say that it was a setback,” John Bangs, an assistant secretary of the union, said of the failed boycott. “On the positive side, the effect was that we put testing and assessment bang in the center of the agenda again.”

At its annual conference last month, union delegates voted overwhelmingly to continue campaigning against national tests for 7-year-olds, as well as teacher profiles for even younger students. Meanwhile, the two unions representing head teachers, the equivalent of U.S. principals—the Secondary Heads Association and the National Association of Head Teachers—also are prodding the government to stop publishing performance tables based on test results, and to focus more on school self-evaluation and assessments by teachers.

National targets, in particular, have come under heavy fire as setting unrealistic expectations that are too centrally driven. In some cases, local education authorities, under pressure to meet government benchmarks, drove individual schools to revise their school targets upward, regardless of the needs of their students.

“My overall view of targets is they’ve been counterproductive,” said Harvey Goldstein, a professor of education at the University of London and one of the government’s sharpest critics. “I think what needs explaining in the first place is why they chose to put those arbitrary targets in place.”

In 2002, the government failed to hit its targets for 11-year-olds. A year ago, in a major concession, officials announced they still hoped to have 85 percent of 11-year-olds achieve a level 4 or better in English and math “as soon as possible,” preferably by 2006. But they agreed to change the local target-setting procedure, accepting that “schools must be able to set targets that they own and believe in.”

Starting this school year, primary schools set their own targets, based on the performance of individual children, with local targets set afterward. And although local authorities can cajole schools to raise their sights, the ultimate responsibility for setting targets will rest with the schools.

At the same time, the government announced it would invite about one-fourth of the LEAs to take part in a pilot effort that would give greater emphasis to teacher-crafted assessment and less emphasis to national-curriculum tests for 7-year-olds. The government’s strategy for ages 11 to 14 also includes a heavy emphasis on “assessment for learning,” or improving teachers’ use of classroom assessments, questioning, and marking to inform and adjust what they do day to day.

Open to Refinements

Some observers hope that, in the long term, national targets and tables will wither away. As evidence, they point to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland has never had high-stakes testing or league tables of the sort produced in England for 11-year-olds. In the past year or so, both Wales and Northern Ireland ceased publishing them. Wales also abandoned national tests for 7-year-olds, and it is considering doing away with such tests for 11- and 14-year-olds, in favor of a greater emphasis on assessments by teachers.

“So, in a sense, it’s sort of crumbling at the edges,” said Wynne Harlen. A professor of education at the University of Bristol, Ms. Harlen has been a strong proponent of teacher-produced assessment and last year completed a critical review of the effects of summative testing on students’ motivation to learn, which critics contend has largely been ignored by the government.

For his part, Charles Clarke, the secretary of state for education and skills—who sits at the top of the education hierarchy in England—has made it clear that testing, targets, and tables are in England to stay. But he has also said the government is open to sensible suggestions about how they might be refined.

Moreover, the government recently signaled that it is interested in what Mr. Barber calls a “sharper, clearer, less burdensome, and more precise” accountability framework.

The most detailed description of what that framework might look like came in a Jan. 8 speech by David Miliband, the minister of state for school standards.

“I believe parents have a right to information about the performance of individual schools, in a form which allows them readily to make comparisons with other schools,” said the Labor MP. “We cannot return to a world where ministers, officials, and probably teachers know the performance of schools, but the public do not.”

Nonetheless, he proposed a greater emphasis on school self-evaluation; sharper, more focused OFSTED inspections; and the provision of better quantitative and qualitative data to schools and parents as the way forward.

In particular, Mr. Miliband outlined the idea for an annual “school profile” that would provide parents with comparative data about a school’s achievement coupled with information from the school itself about its priorities and performance.

‘Sharper Inspections’

Mr. Miliband’s speech was followed, in February, by plans for a revised OFSTED inspection system, based on “shorter, sharper inspections.”

Since its inception, the Office for Standards in Education has played a pivotal and controversial role in England’s school improvement measures. Inspectors base their evaluations on school performance data as well as much-feared and much-anticipated site visits. Critics charge that schools, which receive up to six weeks’ notice of inspections, often spend long hours preparing paperwork and lessons that will put them in a favorable light.

“What they get are what are called amongst teachers ‘OFSTED lessons,’ specially prepared having tried to figure out the mind of the inspectorate, and totally false,” said Carol Taylor Fitz-Gibbon, a professor emerita at the University of Durham, who has criticized the inspections for lacking scientific rigor. “If you were looking for cockroaches as a safety inspector, you wouldn’t find any if you told people you were coming.”

Added Professor Gray of Cambridge University, “We’ve really got a period of a decade where we’ve had league tables and OFSTED as two powerful forms of pressure on schools, and a feeling that probably both need to be reshaped now.”

Under the February proposal, put forth by Mr. Bell, the chief inspector of schools, OFSTED would inspect schools on a more regular basis—at least once every three years. But inspections would last no more than a week, occur with minimal advance notice, and focus on core areas of learning.

Such visits, designed to provide a “warts and all” picture, would result in brief, six-page summaries of schools’ performance, in contrast to the current reports, which can run upwards of 40 pages. The inspections also would rest more on school self-evaluation and on students’ learning gains than has been true previously.

“We’ve come a very long way in the last 12 months, mainly because of David Miliband’s speech in January,” said John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. “I think it’s moving in the right direction.”

One of the biggest challenges is regaining the trust of teachers, who have been bombarded over the past 16 years with what many here refer to as “initiative overload.” England, like the United States, is struggling with issues of recruitment and retention.

“The interventions were almost certainly desirable, in that they have over the years drawn very close attention to the question of standards,” said David H. Hargreaves, a former professor of education at Cambridge and a government adviser. “They have improved the quality of teaching, which we know by a number of indicators. There’s a much stronger focus on student learning and student achievement than there was. And, without question, some of the weakest schools have been improved,” Mr. Hargreaves said.

“The price that’s been paid for it,” he continued, “as always when you have a very strong centralized intervention, is it has created a climate of relatively low trust between ministers and the profession. And a lot of people feel that the levers that have been used—which are a highly prescriptive curriculum, teaching methods, accountability through standardized tests—these have discouraged professional innovation and commitment.

“And I think that policy will now have to seek to restore a trustful partnership between the politicians and the profession.”

Government officials describe the challenge as twofold. One, to deepen the reforms, schools and educators will have to assume ownership of the changes at a more fundamental level. As the education department’s standards chief Mr. Hopkins put it: “How do we actually move from a phase of reform predicated on national prescription to a phase predicated on schools’ leading reform?”

And, two, the focus must be put on the remaining “underperformance” within the system, both the variation in progress across schools with similar starting points and the within-school variation across teachers, student groups, and subject departments.

“It will get harder,” conceded Mr. Barber, the prime minister’s chief adviser on the delivery of public services."You can’t get the kinds of steep changes that we got from 1998 to 2000. But what you can do,” he said, is “get continuous improvement, if the system learns.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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