The iron grip of the government’s school accountability system is damaging children’s education, warns former No10 policy adviser

With teaching-to-the-test, gaming and curriculum-narrowing all on the rise, RSA issues call-to-arms 

  • Former Number 10 policy adviser to Nick Clegg warns that school leaders’ growing desperation to meet the government’s high-stakes performance targets is leading to decisions that are not in the best interests of children and young people.
  • While acknowledging the important role the accountability system played in raising standards over the last 25 years – particularly in the basics of numeracy and literacy – Julian Astle [biog], the RSA’s education director, argues in a new essay that the educational costs of this system now outweigh the benefits and that the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of reform.
  • With gaming – particularly with regards to pupil admissions and exclusions – growing, and teaching-to-the-test so common it is mistaken for good practice, Astle urges the head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman to follow through on her suggestion that Ofsted referees ‘the game’, looking not just at what schools are achieving, but at how they are achieving it.
  • The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) urges everyone with a stake in our school system to join the debate about how, without abolishing tests and dismantling the entire accountability system, we can support teachers to focus on the substance of education, rather than the proxy goals of targets and league tables and the tactics for hitting and climbing them.


Teaching-to-the-test, gaming and a narrowing of the curriculum are damaging the education quality in too many English schools, a new essay by Julian Astle, a former Number 10 adviser and education chief at the RSA [Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce], warns.

The Ideal School Exhibition is the result of Astle’s travels across England in search of inspiring ‘mission-led’ schools that are bucking a growing and concerning trend: that of schools narrowing their focus and hollowing out their teaching in the scramble to meet the constantly shifting demands of the government’s accountability system.

These schools provide a glimpse of what England’s school system could look like if more headteachers could escape the warped logic, skewed priorities and perverse incentives the accountability system all too often produces.

But Astle warns of a growing problem in many English schools of:

  • Narrowing the curriculum – particularly as pupils approach primary school SATs and GCSEs, when schools increasingly focus their time, energy and resources only on those subjects that will affect their league table position.
  • ‘Teaching-to-the-test’ – the practice whereby schools drill pupils in the tactics and techniques of exam taking and focus their instruction on the specific demands of the test and the mark scheme – which not only turns young people off learning but which generates superficial, temporary and illusory educational gains.
  • Gaming – particularly the practices of manipulating the admissions and exclusions system to attract high-performing students and remove low-performing pupils, and of entering large numbers of pupils for easy-to-obtain qualifications of little interest or value to the learner.

To tackle these problems, Astle recommends:

  • Training teachers in the use and misuse of assessment to develop a deeper understanding within the profession of how teaching-to-the-test impedes, rather than supports, learning.
  • Making explicit Ofsted’s emerging role as: the guardian of a broad and balanced curriculum; a counterbalance to the pressures of the DfE’s numbers-based accountability system; and the body mandated and expected to referee the ‘game’, looking not only at what schools achieve, but how they achieve it.
  • Withdrawing the ‘right’ for schools to act as their own admissions authority, and engaging with the RSA’s proposed Commission on School Admissions to ensure that the ‘low road to school improvement’ (manipulating the admissions system rather than improving teaching) is permanently closed.
  • Abolishing the Ofsted ‘outstanding’ category and handing the definition of excellence back to the profession. Ofsted should play a role more akin to the ‘Food Standards Agency’ than ‘restaurant critic’, focusing solely on identifying serious underperformance. As the government and the inspectorate step back, so teachers, coming together through bodies like researchED and the Chartered College of Teaching, should step up, ensuring that research, collaboration and evidence-led practice drive-up standards.
  • Creating a contestable ‘middle-tier’ to ensure that every school – particularly struggling or isolated schools without a high-performing local authority or Multi-Academy Trust behind them – is provided with timely and effective external challenge and support, with middle-tier bodies that cannot demonstrate an ability to maintain or raise standards replaced by ones that can.

The publication of The Ideal School Exhibition kick-starts the RSA’s work to convene a new movement aimed at unlocking the untapped potential of an overworked and disempowered teaching profession and to get our schools focused on the pivotal relationship at the heart of teaching: between the teacher, the pupil and the text – the real substance of education.

The essay will be launched today [16 November] in central London, with speakers including:

  • David Laws, former schools minister, now executive chairman, Education Policy Institute
  • Daisy Christodoulou, director of education, No More Marking
  • Peter Hyman, co-founder and executive headteacher, School 21
  • Julian Astle, director of creative learning and development, RSA.

Julian Astle, education director at the RSA, said:

“Having worked at the centre of government, I know that the architects of England’s school accountability system are motivated by the best of intentions: to expose serious under-performance and raise standards.

“But as the grip of that system has tightened over the last 25 years, and the catalogue of unintended consequences and perverse incentives has grown ever longer, it is hard to not to conclude that the costs now outweigh the benefits. We have reached that critical point where positive change becomes possible – where the risks of inaction are higher than the risks of reform.

“The RSA calls on everyone who recognises the importance of assessment and accountability, but who shares our concerns that the system as currently designed is damaging children’s education, to join the debate about how to reform that system for the better.”


Peter Hyman, co-founder and executive headteacher at School 21 in Stratford, said:

“This report outlines with vivid clarity the pressures on schools to meet the accountability framework of Ofsted and exam results. It shows that it is difficult but possible to drive through a more expansive vision of education that meets the needs of these complex times.  And it makes the case compellingly for a reform agenda that allows a more rounded view of education – the development of head, heart and hand.”


Daisy Christodoulou, education director of No More Marking, said:

Exams are only an indirect measure of academic achievement, which means it is possible for them to be gamed and manipulated in such a way that they lose their original meaning.

“This report makes some vitally important points about why this is so damaging, and why the pursuit of exam results and accountability metrics therefore has to be informed by an understanding of the curriculum, and of what it means to master a subject.”


Ed Vainker, co-founder and headteacher at Reach Academy in Feltham, said:

“While clearly setting out why schools need to be held accountable for their performance, this paper highlights a truth that everyone at Reach Academy in Feltham would recognise: that ultimately, quality and excellence cannot be imposed from outside through regulation – they need to be owned by the school, and driven by a sense of social mission and moral purpose.”


David Laws, former schools minister and now executive chairman, Education Policy Institute, said:

“Anyone who cares about the quality of the education England’s school children are receiving would do well to consider the warnings contained in this thoughtful essay. Ensuring the accountability system creates the right incentives, and drives the right behaviours, is a key priority.”