The SATs and the SSAPs of the schools on my mind

There’s been a lot of discussion about SATs and why they are needed. That obviously is a significant bone of contention. Broadly, the two sides of the argument go thusly:

On the for SATs side we have “we have to have SATs to ensure schools and teachers are accountable.”

On the against side we have “teachers are professionals, they should be left to do the job they are paid for.”

My problem is that after years of thinking on this issue, years of being a teacher, years of being a school governor, years of being a loud mouth on Twitter, I still think both these arguments are true. Perhaps my bigger problem is that when push comes to shove and I’m told I have to plump for one side or the other I usually (reluctantly) come down on the side of “we have to have SATs to ensure schools and teachers are accountable.”

I’ve written before about teachers and professionalism and I’ve been trying to understand why I think that accountability, carried out as it currently is, remains the option I would have to choose.

Let’s go back to a previous life, when I was an accountant. No-one denies that accountancy is a profession and that those working in it are professionals. I was trying to remember how, as an auditor, my work was reviewed. How was I held accountable? It was a multi-faceted approach. Firstly, I worked alongside other professionals who had an input into the process. So there was a check there. The client was fully invested in the process and had a voice, so there was a balance there. And at the end of the audit there was the partner. The partner had to sign off. They reviewed the files with you there, a viva if you will. They knew the client, they knew the process, they knew the law. So these were not always easy sessions. So I was held accountable for the quality of the work I did.

But there was something else that could be relied on. Well, two things really.

Firstly there were SSAPs. Statements of Standard Accounting Practice. There were 25 of them, some more detailed than others and they were the principles of generally accepted accounting practice. If you wanted to know how something should be done, that was where you went. It was the last word. If you disagreed with your partner on an issue and you could make your point with a SSAP, you won.

Secondly there were the audit processes your firm required you to use. In my case at KPMG it was SEADOC or Systems Evaluation Approach – Documentation of Controls. There were standardised flowcharting, standardised sample selection documentation, standardised testing protocols. The first thing a partner would ask at a review meeting was “Where are the yellows?” referring to the systems documentation.

So the end of audit review that “held me to account” could be less rigorous than you might expect (i.e., no one reran the audit) because of the constraints imposed on me by SSAPs and SEADOC. In effect I was being held accountable all the time. The partner only had to review that I had done the work in the way expected of me. They relied on the process to take care of the quality. And whilst there was external review it was not as onerous as it could have been as the systems were trusted (you could review the implementation of the system more efficiently than you can review the outcomes).

So I can hear the shouts now – “Teaching isn’t like that!”. Well, I know. But it could be (and I’m not suggesting here that it should be). Schools could be more proscriptive about the way they expect teachers to work. You see some of this when schools insist on specific forms of lesson planning to occur. They could insist on a particular form of lesson structure, 3-part, 4-part. And some do. They could insist on specific texts being used. They could insist on lessons being scripted in a specific way. They could insist on scripted lessons.

The reason, as a profession, we have been able to (largely) avoid such issues is because the accountability regime exists as it does. As an auditor it would not have been possible to conduct an audit how I felt like and also avoid detailed end of audit review. The very constraints imposed by the systems enabled the light touch review. In teaching we have (predominantly) very light touch systems and rigorous end point accountability. As a professional I believe you have to accept one or the other. I also believe that the accountability system existing as it does has inhibited the development of teaching as a profession.

There is £40 billion of public funding spent on schools each year. There has to be some form of accountability as to the effectiveness of that spend. Just saying “we’re professionals” is insufficient. So the profession has to decide how it wants that accountability to work. Without SATs it has nothing but “we’re professionals” to put in its place. Now I don’t particularly want to see every lesson scripted, but I do think there is a place for Statements of Standard Teaching Practice, or SSTPs and I do think there is a place for a more detailed curriculum, embodied in usable schemes of work. The school Teaching and Learning policy has to become less a catch-all and more of a guidance document. Simply put the structures and systems around the delivery of a schools curriculum have to become a little more visible, a little more constraining.

If we want to get rid of SATs because of the negatives they undoubtedly have we have to accept some changes to what is seen as a professional approach in order to facilitate that. Simply put, as a profession I believe we have to give up a bit of freedom in order to get a bigger bit back.