Rethinking Accountability

Dr Vic Cook, Education and Research Project Specialist, Chartered College of Teaching

It has been argued that there is an urgent need to rethink the accountability system in England. The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) was created by the Education (Schools) Act 1992 in a bid to secure school improvement and enable parents to make informed choices about their children’s education (Elliott, 2012). However, the high-stakes nature of this inspection system has consequently been associated with the creation of a culture of constant monitoring and performativity (Perryman, 2006). Amidst a growing consensus that Ofsted’s inspection model is no longer fit for purpose, leaders’ union the NAHT (2024) has identified several longer-term reforms that are needed to develop a ‘higher-trust, lower-stakes inspection system’ (p.8). But how do we develop trust in the inspection system? And how does the situation in England compare to other countries?

The situation in England reflects a more widespread move towards an outcome-based accountability system where schools are increasingly being held accountable for the academic performance of their students. An analysis of data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) from 2000 and 2015 has revealed that, over the intervening 15 years, assessments and accountability practices have increased within the larger part of the OECD (Teltemann and Jude, 2019). This was the case across countries characterised by different levels of assessment and accountability practices, reflecting the widespread pressure to raise quality and efficiency across education systems. For example, in Sweden, where peer-oriented evaluation procedures are more common, the largest increase in teacher peer review was observed.

Björn and Joakim (2021) describe outcome-based accountability as characterised by three practices: (1) the production of standardised performance data, (2) the evaluation of this data and (3) the incentivisation of performance. Their analysis of outcome-based accountability data from PISA 2015 across OECD countries suggests that accountability in education is widespread. They describe most countries as falling into what they call a ‘Thick’ accountability regime. This regime, which is typified by higher use of most forms of accountability tools (such as standardised testing and performance reporting), includes all Anglo-Saxon countries, all Nordic countries except for Finland and all eastern or central European countries except for the Czech Republic. This contrasts with those continental (including southern) European countries with a ‘Thin’ accountability regime, where the use of accountability tools is much lower. The authors caution that further research is needed to understand how and why different education systems adopt different accountability regimes.

Interestingly, Björn and Joakim also found that the use of accountability tools does not necessarily equate to higher test results in PISA. In several high-performing countries, such as Finland, Japan, Switzerland and Germany, accountability plays a minor role, whilst in low-performing countries such as Luxembourg, Iceland, Chile and Israel the use of accountability tools is much higher (OECD, 2016).

Whilst it is important to sound a note of caution at this point about Finland’s apparent success, with the latest 2022 PISA results showing Finnish students’ performance declining in maths, science and reading, evidence from Finland is useful when considering the idea of trust. In a country with few formal teacher accountability tools, accountability is instead focused on the point of entry into the profession, with admission to teacher training a highly selective process (Hwa, 2021). Furthermore, public trust in every level of the education system in Finland is high, with the result that teachers are trusted to work autonomously, with little formal monitoring. That said, Hwa, (2022) cautions against the “naïve borrowing of ‘best practices’” (p.557), highlighting the importance of sociocultural context to understanding teacher accountability policy. Hwa argues that a culture of trust within society more broadly is key to understanding what works within Finland. ‘[T]his trust is not a carte blanche. Rather, it is based on the expectation that other members of society will likewise fulfil their complementary responsibilities’ (Hwa 2022, 551).

This suggests that developing trust within the inspection system in England is likely to require a more fundamental shift beyond the education policy context. And whilst not a panacea, trust is clearly something that we need to be talking about as part of the urgent need to rethink accountability in English schools. 


Björn, H. & Joakim, L. (2021). Outcome-based accountability regimes in OECD countries: a global policy model?, Comparative Education, 57:3, 301-321, DOI: 10.1080/03050068.2020.1849614

Elliott, A. (2012). Twenty years inspecting English schools : Ofsted 1992-2012. Research and Information on State Education (RISE), November 2012.

Hwa, Y-Y. (2021). “Contrasting Approaches, Comparable Efficacy? How Macro-Level Trust Influences Teacher Accountability in Finland and Singapore.” In Trust, Accountability and Capacity in Education System Reform: Global Perspectives in Comparative Education, edited by Melanie Ehren, and Jacqueline Baxter, 222–251. Abingdon: Routledge. doi:10.4324/ 9780429344855-11.

Hwa, Y-Y. (2022) ‘Our system fits us’: comparing teacher accountability, motivation, and sociocultural context in Finland and Singapore, Comparative Education, 58:4, 542-561, DOI: 10.1080/03050068.2022.2102754

NAHT (2024) Rethinking School Inspection: Delivering fair, proportionate and humane school accountability. NAHT: London.

OECD. 2016. PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education, PISA. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Perryman, J. (2006). Panoptic performativity and school inspection regimes: Disciplinary mechanisms and life under special measures. Journal of Education Policy, 21(2), 147–161.

Teltemann, J., & Jude, N. (2019). Assessments and accountability in secondary education: International trends. Research in Comparative and International Education, 14(2), 249-271.


  • Accountability measures have to move away from so much attention to outcomes of testing, be based on trust and upholding of professional standards (as suggested) and importantly feature well-considered self-reflection/self evaluation. The problem is also reliance solely on Ofsted inspections and a flawed framework of inspection (EIF) with too much attention given to the single headline grabbing grade that becomes the be-all/end-all for institutions. Being accountable requires being open and transparent to external scrutiny but the high stakes of the current inspection regime pushes too many schools and colleges to not be open but second guess what inspectors might want to see in their quest for the grading.

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