The OECD reported recently that test anxiety of UK students is the third highest of 72 countries.
The school leaders I speak to are fully aware that too much pressure can create unhealthy levels of stress in teachers and students alike. On the other hand, there is an accountability regime that means that small changes in performance can create large, and very public, declines in league table positions.
One of the problems here is the short-term nature of responses to performance pressure. An intense burst of activity for groups of students at risk of under-performing can absolutely make a difference to that year’s results. But if this leads to students who are put off education from that moment onwards, or teachers who leave the profession, this can’t be sustainable.
Perhaps this is one aspect where schools can learn from painful lessons in other sectors in the past. In business, analogously, it is quite easy to produce a short-term profit, if that’s all you want to do. You could cut back on investment in infrastructure, push your workers to work harder and for longer, cut back on pay and provide an inferior service to customers.
This would increase profit — but only for a short time. In a year or two, staff would leave, and so would customers and investors. We need to be careful that pressure for results today doesn’t lead to an unsustainable education system tomorrow.
Leading business thinkers realised several decades ago that a purely financial perspective, which may have been adequate for an industrial age, was not sufficient for the information age, and the ‘balanced business scorecard‘ was created. As the name implies, this approach sets profits alongside some balancing measures such as staff development, infrastructure, and customer satisfaction.
The balanced business scorecard is not just a reporting measure, but a way of rethinking an organisation’s vision and planning. It is believed that 50% of large US firms have adopted this approach.
Turning this idea back to schools, it seems that some of this thinking is already around. In Dubai, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority has taken the bold step of focusing on ‘happiness’ measures in support of its regulation of private school. In an almost as sunny place — Wakefield — Outwood Grange Academy Trust’s dashboard measures not only student attainment and school finances, but also the ‘wellbeing’ of teachers and students.
Now we hit another dilemma, this time for government. By focusing on Attainment/Progress 8 (at GCSE level), the Department for Education has at least introduced a more balanced approach to student performance. But if DfE announced it was introducing other measures for school performance — let’s say, teacher engagement, or student well-being, this could understandably feel like even more accountability for school leaders.
One way forward could be to develop new frameworks for assessing performance of multi-academy trusts. As noted above, some trusts are already moving towards producing a more balanced set of measures for their own governance.
There are quite a few ways the balanced scorecard measures could be created and reported on, and further ways in which accountability could be attached to them. A good next step would be a pilot involving those academy trusts that want to explore this idea.
It’s right that we want every child to receive the very best education, but we need to be careful that pressure for results today doesn’t lead to an unsustainable education system tomorrow.
Teachers and school leaders need to feel ownership of their workload, so they are invigorated, not drained by it. For this to happen, we need the government to support sustainable working practices. A balanced reporting approach could be a way to achieve this.