How can we go about building trust into the education system? Here we look at the NAHT’s Commission of Inquiry into Assessment and League Tables

The NAHT’s commission of inquiry concludes that we need to build trust across the education system so as to remove the perceived need for:

  • systems of hyper-accountability
  • micro-management by external agencies
  • negative control mechanisms
  • high-stakes pressure on teachers and students.

Trust breakdown

A paper by Lady Perry, co-chair of the Conservative party’s policy commission on improving public services, argues that there has been ‘breakdown of trust between government and the teaching profession.’ This, she says, has led to constant testing, together with an inspection regime which ‘looks for what is wrong instead of looking for good practice on which to build’.

Changing the language

‘The language of the debate about education needs to be changed,’ argues headteacher David Pratt, ‘to one that is positive, encouraging and supportive. Schools should be given credit for what they have achieved and be recognised again as a proud part of our public services.’ It was the lack of trust, Pratt argues, that led to tests being developed to create league tables and place schools in competition with each other, rather than to aid school development by strengthening teaching and learning.

False assumption

The current system is based on the assumption that teachers, like other public servants, are selfish and therefore not particularly interested in enabling students to achieve to their maximum ability, according to Warwick Mansell (author of Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing and writer for the Times Education Supplement). The accountability system has been designed to motivate these self-interested individuals to act in ways that further the public good. Publishing exam results, in this account, is seen as a way of forcing teachers to serve their pupils’ needs for good results.

Mansell observes that the system was set up without there being any evidence as to whether this was a true account of what motivated teachers. ‘If,’ he observes, ‘most teachers do want to help their pupils, then an over-zealous accountability system is just getting in their way, forcing them, for example, to spend months on test preparation when they, and their pupils, would benefit much more from a rounded education.’

Schools as factories

A paper by Professor Alan Smithers describes how treating pupils’ test and exam results ‘as football scores’ led to schools being seen ‘as factories for producing paper qualifications, with the teachers as operatives.’ ‘We need,’ he says, ‘to restore the tests and examinations to their rightful place in education – which is opening doors for pupils, not judging schools or teachers. Governments must never lose sight of the fact that schools are there for the pupils, not to chase increasingly meaningless points totals.’ He also describes the need for the inspection service to be rebalanced to ‘report on schools in the round’ rather than being over-reliant on test and examination results.

Participants in the commission repeatedly assert that they are not calling for an end to accountability in schools but rather for the removal of systems of assessment that are damaging to the educational experience of children.

They observe, though, that government ministers seem unwilling to consider the downsides of the accountability system. This is because they appear to believe, as Warwick Mansell says, that ‘the monitoring system is the unalterable rock of the schools regime, upon which everything else should be built.’ NAHT general secretary Mick Brookes concludes by calling on policymakers to ‘show courage to put in process change that will engender a renaissance of spirit amongst the school community’ so as to:

  • provide equal opportunities for all children
  • broaden the focus of education
  • back the joy of learning.


The commission recommends that:

  • should have access to a bank of tests to assess students at the end of Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. These would have ‘something in common’ with the Making Good Progress tests currently being piloted in some schools but there ‘would be far greater flexibility about when children were assessed.’
  • national sampling should replace key stage tests as the means of tracking national standards
  • pupils’ achievement at all levels and in all areas should be recognised through the use of Pupil Profiles which recognise the breadth of what pupils can do.
  • league tables should no longer be compiled. Instead, much more detailed and comprehensive information should be provided to help parents choose a school for their child.

Tables, Targets and Testing – It’s Time to Trust our Schools

is published by the NAHT