Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Why has Ofsted failed? asks Education Forum Member Michele Ledda

When everyone is accountable, no one is responsible

The intractable problems in the regulation of public services that have emerged in the past few years have finally come to a head. Barely a day goes by without a national newspaper or news bulletin highlighting major failures and inconsistencies, or the absurdities of ‘regulation gone mad’.

The failings of Ofsted have become so obvious, the problems so unmanageable, the rules so abstruse and confusing, the outcomes of inspections so unpredictable, that even those whose careers depend on implementing government initiatives, such as headteachers and directors of children’s services, have started to speak out. And as the schools and hospitals regulators are being lambasted from all sides, Ofsted responds by blaming boring teachers, while the Care Quality Commission (CQC) thinks the problem is an excessive reliance on numerical data.

One thing is certain: public confidence in the system has been undermined. Many now realise that often the reports that are supposed to guarantee the quality of public services are not worth the digital paper they are written on. How can Ofsted give Haringey children’s services three stars one moment and fail them the next? How can hospitals that have just received a good rating by CQC then be failed by Monitor? And how can the same hospital trust, South Manchester, be rated one of the ten safest in the country one year and a failing hospital the next by the Dr Foster report? Have the people who work there suddenly become incompetent? The same point applies to public examinations. How can both GCSE and A-level examination results improve without fail every year? Surely one would expect to see some cycles, even if the longer term trend is upwards? The media have treated the recent very slight fall in primary SATs scores as a scandal, but cycles should be normal. The real scandal should be the artificial increase in scores. There must be a degree of creative accounting in this ‘system of accountability’.

Unfortunately, with the regulators and the regulated shifting the blame onto each other, the part of the system that should be held responsible the most, government policy, has been let off the hook. This should come as no surprise, since the purpose of regulation is precisely to shift responsibility away from government policy and onto ‘systems of accountability’. In order to understand this shift, it is worth reflecting on the difference in meaning between the adjectives ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’. They are often used as synonyms, but they refer to very different kinds of ethos.

Those who are responsible follow their own judgment and take full responsibility, as far as it is humanly possible, for their activities; those who are accountable only take limited responsibility. Their responsibility is limited to following the rules and fulfilling the targets they have been set and for which they are accountable. If they have followed all the rules to the letter and a patient still dies, a child is abused or remains ignorant, they cannot be held responsible, and rightly so, as the rules, not their own judgement, are responsible.

A responsible teacher exercises his own judgment and concentrates on teaching his subject to the best of his abilities, while an accountable teacher worries about teaching to the test, telling children about levels and assessment objectives, filling in lesson plans and writing WILFs (What I’m Looking For) and WALTs (We Are Learning To) on the board, and all the worst practice Ofsted enforces. Similarly, a responsible doctor exercises her own judgment and acts in the best interest of her patients, while an accountable doctor practises defensive medicine and worries about meeting targets.

A responsible politician will try to implement a policy that embodies a particular vision and public spirit, whereas an accountable politician will ask focus groups and independent inquiries what to do. Accountable politicians will say that vision should come from consumers and that what matters is ‘what works’. In this way, government policy is not judged according to a particular ideal of public service, but only assessed on whether it meets the targets it sets for itself, or that have been set by an ‘independent’ body.

Of course, real people in real life situations are never entirely responsible or entirely accountable. Since no system is perfect, professionals have always had to cover their backs to some degree, as well as exercising their judgment and following the ideals of their profession. Life doesn’t follow precise rules and in the real world you do need to exercise your own judgment. Without human judgment, nothing would work at all. Yet today there are more and more powerful pressures on the increasingly regulated to abandon judgment and responsibility and to embrace accountability.

When a tragic death occurs that captures the media’s attention, an independent inquiry will be set up, taking both the heat and responsibility away from politicians. Lord X or Sir Y will make proposals for new and more stringent regulations with the promise to make another tragedy more unlikely ... until the next one happens, that is. In the process, the ability of professionals to exercise their judgment and take responsibility is further restricted. They are more and more encouraged to follow guidelines and cover their own backs. This only creates a vicious circle of anxiety, which leads to more and more regulation and less and less responsibility.

Many seem to think that we could not live without a ‘system of accountability’, that it would be impossible for public services to function without a regulator. Yet there was a time when people thought they could not live without guidance from the Church of Rome. Then they realised that it was possible to read and interpret the Bible by themselves, to exercise judgment and be directly responsible for their own actions.

I think that we need a similar shift from external guidance to self-government, and that the best and most efficient way to run public services would be to inject some public spirit into them and establish a system of responsibility. In order to do that, we need a government that knows what it is doing, but also autonomous professionals who refuse to tick boxes and citizens that refuse to behave like angry customers and decide to take responsibility instead.