This document sets out the NASUWT’s position on the use of high-stakes tests and assessments in systems of school accountability. It focuses particularly on those tests and assessments that are undertaken principally to construct measures of school accountability rather than those undertaken for some other reason, such as public examinations.

Background and context

Each UK jurisdiction has discretion to establish its own arrangements for holding schools to public account. Policymakers in the UK have made use of two broad approaches to public accountability:

  1. external inspection of schools with the publication of inspection reports; and
  2. publication of indicators of school performance, which may include direct publication of aggregated test and assessment outcomes, in ways which aim to allow the performance of individual schools to be compared directly with other individual schools or benchmarked against other schools.

The external inspection of schools is a longstanding feature of the school accountability regimes across the UK, dating back to the appointment of the first state-funded independent inspectors in England in 1837. The publication of individual inspection reports began in England and Wales in 1993 and is now established practice across the UK. The frameworks under which schools are inspected in the UK differ between jurisdictions in terms of scope, practical arrangements and consequences for performance judged to be below acceptable standards. However, all provide a form of narrative qualitative judgement of schools’ progress and achievement and make some use of official assessment data in the formation of these judgements.

Practice in respect of the publication of school-level pupil performance information and data varies more widely across the UK. While school-level examination information is available for most schools across the UK, no official performance tables are published in Scotland and Northern Ireland, although third-parties continue to construct such tables on an unofficial basis. In England and Wales, performance tables were introduced in 1993, although they were discontinued by the then Welsh Assembly Government in 2001 following the devolution from Westminster of responsibilities in this area in 1999. Currently, alongside school inspection reports, individual school performance in Wales is reported through the National School Categorisation System, introduced in 2015, which places schools in one of four colour-coded categories based on a range of indicators of performance without publishing information about the outcomes of school assessments and examinations.

In England, the publication of school assessment outcomes has continued, although their form and the extent to which they are contextualised have been subject to change over time. Currently, primary accountability measures include publication of the outcomes of statutory assessments at the end of Key Stage 2, indicators of pupil progress and benchmarking information for individual schools with other schools deemed to be comparable. For secondary schools, published information is based principally on the outcomes of public examinations, particularly in respect of the Progress 8 indicator which is intended to demonstrate the ‘value-added’ to pupils’ performance by schools between Key Stages 2 and 4.

In addition to publication in performance tables or comparable systems, test and assessment data can be used for other accountability purposes. For example, in addition to inspectorates, such data can be used by local authorities, multi-academy trusts or central governments and administrations to form judgements about the performance of individual schools.

High-stakes assessments in school accountability systems

While all the systems of school accountability noted above make use of assessments designed for other purposes, such as public examinations, some rest principally on those designed specifically, at least in part, to inform school accountability systems. In the UK, the use of such assessments currently is limited to arrangements in England. In Wales, the National Reading and Numeracy Personalised Assessments undertaken by pupils in Years 2 to 9 are excluded explicitly from public accountability measures, although the outcomes of such assessments can be used by inspectors and others in the formation of judgements about school performance. In Scotland, the Scottish National Standardised Assessments undertaken by pupils in P1, P4, P7, and S3 are not published in performance tables although it remains unclear whether how the information gathered through the assessments will feed into other accountability systems such as inspection or external oversight by local authorities or Regional Improvement Consortia.

In England, by contrast, some statutory assessments are used for the purposes of school accountability. In particular, statutory end of Key Stage assessments at Key Stage 2 in English and mathematics, feed in directly to the construction of school accountability measures. The equivalent assessments at Key Stage 1, while not published in performance tables, are used for the purposes of calculating high-stakes progress measures. The outcomes of other statutory assessments, such as the Year 1 phonics check and the Year 4 multiplication check, while not published in performance tables or some other equivalent form, can still be used by external evaluators of school performance.   

NASUWT position

The NASUWT remains clear that as state-funded institutions providing a critical public service, it is important that schools are held to account for their work with children and young people. However, as made clear in the report adopted at Annual Conference 2013, Maintaining World Class Schools, the establishment of a fit-for-purpose framework of accountability is critical to ensuring that the state education system continues to secure the highest levels of public trust and confidence.

However, the Union remains clear that the current model of school accountability in England, based to a significant extent on the use of performance tables constructed from a narrow range of pupil performance indicators, fails to capture the totality of the work that schools, individually and collectively, undertake with pupils, and the benefits that derive from this work for individual learners as well as for the wider wellbeing of the society within which they live.

It is evident that the operation of performance tables has created an environment that continues to result in a skewing of the curriculum offered by schools and a disproportionate focus on core subjects. These approaches to school accountability have promoted an increasingly entrenched culture of teaching to the test and have put staff in schools under pressure to target resources to secure ‘acceptable’ outcomes for the purposes of performance tables rather than providing teachers and school leaders with appropriate scope to use their professional judgement and expertise to tailor learning experiences to meet the needs of pupils.

The continued problems associated with the publication of performance tables, including those derived from the outcomes of statutory assessment, highlight the need for the following reforms:

  1. End the publication of performance tables

    The NASUWT has set out ten key principles on which an effective and equitable school accountability system should be based. These principles reflect practices in education systems beyond the UK identified by the OECD as high performing or fast improving, in which high levels of public confidence in these systems are maintained in ways that support rather than undermine the work of teachers and school leaders to maintain high levels of progress and achievement.

    Performance tables or comparable mechanisms play no part in the accountability frameworks in place in these education systems. It is, therefore, clear that performance tables in the form used in the UK fail to reflect the NASUWT’s principles and that effective reform of the school accountability system requires adoption of the NASUWT’s longstanding position that their use should be discontinued.

    In circumstances where high-stakes performance tables are retained, the NASUWT continues to reject as profoundly misguided calls to replace the statutory end of Key Stage assessments with a system comprised entirely of externally moderated teacher assessment. Such an approach would result in little more than the replacement of one high-stakes form of assessment with another, with adverse workload consequences for teachers and school leaders and with no tangible educational benefits for learners. Notwithstanding the safeguards that have been put in place as a result of the actions of the NASUWT, the replacement in 2012 of the statutory writing test at Key Stage 2 in England with externally moderated teacher assessment has served only to increase workload burdens while having no discernible impact on other accountability-related pressures in schools.

  2. Develop an alternative national system of assessment

    The discontinuation of performance tables would have a powerful and positive impact on the high-stakes context within which statutory assessment takes place given that the outcomes of these assessments would no longer be used to support an ineffective and inequitable school accountability regime.

    The NASUWT is clear that a fit for purpose school accountability system should be supported by meaningful, valid and reliable information about the performance of pupils in individual schools as well as across localities and the education system as a whole. However, the ending of performance tables would call into serious question the basis on which statutory assessment is undertaken currently. In particular, it would be difficult to justify the arbitrary location of such assessments at the end of Years 2 and 6. At present, the administration of statutory assessments on the basis of pupils’ chronological age is a function of present requirements in respect of the publication of performance data rather than the educational interests of pupils.

    The NASUWT has long held that reforms to the school accountability system would create the circumstances to create a national framework in which decisions about timing of the summative assessment of pupils and the nature of the areas to be assessed could be determined on the basis of teachers’ professional judgements about pupils’ development rather than on arbitrary end of Key Stage demarcations. Such ‘when-ready’ approaches to assessment could make use of common, national banks of tasks and tests that would produce valid, reliable and comparable assessment data with safeguards to protect teachers and school leaders from excessive marking-related workload burdens.

    Appendix – Ten Principles for School Accountability

    Systems of school accountability should:

    i. Trust teachers as professionals
    Systems of accountability must not be designed to, or operate in ways that could undermine teachers’ professional status, integrity or commitment.

    Accountability systems should also recognise that, as professionals, teachers have particular expertise which means that they may be best placed to make judgements about the quality and effectiveness of particular aspects of education.

    ii. Support schools to provide a curriculum that is broad, balanced and meets the needs of all learners

    Accountability systems should value the range of ways in which schools help learners to engage in learning, progress and achieve. Teachers should be actively engaged in decisions about the design and implementation of curricula and assessment and the related accountability arrangements.

    iii. Support schools to maintain high educational standards

    Accountability judgements should be holistic. Teachers and school leaders should contribute to decisions about improving the quality of provision for pupils.

    iv. Support teachers and school leaders to improve the quality of teaching and learning

    Accountability arrangements should complement efforts to improve progress and outcomes of pupils. Teachers and school leaders should have an entitlement to high-quality CPD and time within the working day to access such CPD.

    Accountability should recognise teachers’ professional knowledge and expertise rather than focus on penalising teachers.

    v. Encourage and support teachers and school leaders to work co-operatively and collaboratively

    Teachers should be encouraged to work together to develop and share effective practice. Collaborative working, within and beyond the school, should be recognised as an important form of CPD.

    vi. Be fair and equitable

    Teachers should not be penalised because, for example, they are inclusive or work with learners who have challenging or complex needs. Furthermore, teachers should not be penalised because they do not teach a ‘core’ subject.

    vii. Ensure that teachers and school leaders are supported to engage in dialogue and collaborative decision-making

    The collective voice of teachers should be recognised as of critical importance when forming judgements about the quality and effectiveness of education provision.

    viii. Ensure that the needs and priorities of learners and parents are considered and taken into account appropriately in decision-making

    ‘Pupil voice’ should not be used in ways which undermine the professional status, integrity or judgements of teachers and school leaders.

    ix.Be streamlined and avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and workload

    Accountability systems should not place unnecessary or excessive workload and bureaucratic burdens on teachers and school leaders.

    x. Be rigorous, reasonable and valid

    The public and the teaching profession should have confidence in the judgements made. Inspection and accountability systems should respect the professionalism of teachers, not impose excessive and unnecessary workload burdens, and provide genuine support to the work of schools in raising standards and promoting educational excellence.