6. Accountability

Accountability aims to establish public trust in the functioning of the education system. It involves providing reasons to stakeholders and the broader public for one’s actions. The purpose is primarily legitimation, as it relates to complying with existing laws and regulations on the one hand, and accounting for the quality and efficiency of the services provided on the other (Rouw et al., 2016[1]; Shewbridge, Fuster and Rouw, 2019[2]).

Importantly, accountability, if designed well, can be an important source of information for feedback, learning and improvement to those involved. To this end, OECD’s work on strategic education governance underlines the importance of managing the relational aspects of accountability. Accountability relationships are social processes between those carrying out their work and responsibilities (actors) and those checking this work (forums) against expectations. These exchanges and interactions are the source of learning on both sides of the relationship.

There are three key components in a functional accountability exchange (represented in the inner box in Figure 6.1). On one side of the relationship, actors need to give detailed and accurate accounts of their work and decisions over the complete set of demands. On the other side, forums must make an accurate, fair and careful assessment of these accounts and apply in a consistent and fair way their verdict and any potential consequences for actors (Fahey and Köster, 2019[3]). Any functional accountability exchange carries some learning for actors (Schillemans and Smulders, 2015[4]). At the very least, actors can ‘learn’ whether they achieve expectations of a forum against some measure of performance.

Beyond this, accountability can promote learning by increasing the availability of relevant and accurate information to guide improvement. Accountability relationships can support and motivate actors to learn by reflecting on their past and present conduct with the goal to validate and, where necessary, improve their substantive practice. Actors learn when the forum can provide a valuable perspective on their substantive conduct and its ability to do so grows through repeated interactions with those whose work they assess (represented in the outer box in Figure 6.1).

In designing and/or implementing accountability mechanisms, policy makers should be aware that they will influence the way actors and forums interact with each other and that this can be an important lever for constructive accountability relationships that promote learning. When those involved in accountability exchanges experience meaningful interactions this helps build a record of successful co-operation (which in turn can strengthen credibility and enhance trust), and helps participants to adapt to each other’s expectations for the specific relationship with its context, challenges and legacies (Fahey and Köster, 2019[3]; Olsen, 2013[5]; Schillemans and Busuioc, 2014[6]). Ways that policy makers can balance accountability instruments and foster constructive accountability relationships include:

  • ensuring the ‘fit’ of accountability instruments with the existing landscape of organisations, cultures and decision-making traditions

  • focusing accountability relationships on what is substantively expected of those who carry out work

  • organising the agreement and disagreement over expectations among the varied stakeholders in education governance.

The OECD team explored with each stakeholder group how standardised tests could contribute to accountability in the Flemish education system (Box 6.1). These discussions gave insights to the existing culture and traditions in accountability and allowed the OECD team to document what stakeholders appreciate about this, where they express frustrations and how they think standardised tests could support their efforts going forward.

An important consideration for a functional accountability system is how well it ‘fits’ with existing organisations, their cultures, and the appropriateness with respect to broader socio-cultural contexts (Stacey, 1995[7]; Lanivich et al., 2010[8]; Gelfand, Lim and Raver, 2004[9]). During all discussions with the OECD team, stakeholders underlined the importance of ‘responsibility’ as a fundamental concept in Flemish education. Understanding accountability as a matter of internal responsibility to provide quality education is rooted in the comprehensive concept of freedom of education and the central role of autonomous schools and their umbrella organisations in quality assurance (Box 6.2).

In this way, the OECD team noted a broad consensus from stakeholders that standardised tests would best contribute as tools to support schools in their responsibilities. During discussions with the OECD team, many stakeholders took the time to challenge a too narrow understanding of ‘accountability’, typically in relation to public performance reporting. There were appeals for a guarantee that the results of the new standardised tests would not be used for school performance rankings. These points were also made in the stakeholder reflection seminar and are documented in Chapter 5.

At the same time, the OECD team noted a demand for regular reliable information on schools. Freedom of education applies both to the freedom for providers to establish schools based on particular values and goals, as well as parents choosing a school for their children according to their respective values. On this latter point, the OECD team noted arguments made by parental and student representatives that schools could better meet responsibilities on communicating about the quality of their educational provision. There is a lack of information on school quality to support school choice. They noted that the current health crisis had brought an additional challenge due to fewer physical visits and greater reliance on consulting online materials. There was an appreciation for the public availability of school inspection reports, but points were made about their limited usefulness, in terms of many being outdated (due to the inspection review cycle), only limited information is included in the public report and the reporting style is not easily navigated.

The major mechanism to hold schools accountable is the Flemish Education Inspectorate (the Inspectorate). Established in 1991, it is an independent body under the direct jurisdiction of the Minister of Education. The inspectorate evaluates whether schools adhere to regulations and achieve minimum standards around quality and processes in place (attainment targets). The role of school inspection as a major element of accountability in Flemish education was not questioned in any of the discussions with the OECD team.

Together with schools and their pedagogical advisory services (PBD), the Inspectorate forms a pillar of the ‘quality triangle’ in Flemish education. The OECD team noted during discussions with stakeholders that the established ‘quality triangle’ approach was firmly rooted in the educational culture. All stakeholders were familiar with this, referred to it with ease and used it as the ‘anchor’ of many of their arguments. It was seen to fit well with the constitutional freedom of education, placing responsibility for education quality firmly with the schools. At the same time, the OECD team noted some frustrations relating to the implementation of the quality triangle and how professionals could intervene with their respective roles. Specifically, representatives from the Inspectorate and the umbrella organisations were hopeful that the availability of results from standardised tests could strengthen the reactivity and implementation of each part of the quality triangle.

The OECD team attempts to present visually the points raised about how the quality triangle currently works (Figure 6.2). On the left side of the triangle, the Inspectorate interacts with all schools (as a condition to receive public funding), as indicated by the blue arrow. However, the length and narrowness of the arrow represents the distance of this relationship due to the length of the inspection cycle, which leaves a lag in feedback for schools, parents and students on school quality. The Inspectorate could benefit from seeing how schools integrate standardised tests to their quality assurance processes and from the availability of regular information on school outcomes. This would strengthen the evidence base for inspectors and, as representatives from the Inspectorate commented in the stakeholder reflection seminar, support the implementation of a more differentiated inspection approach (see Chapter 5). In essence, this relates to greater reactivity from the inspectorate to intervene in a more timely way in schools with educational quality concerns.

On the right side of the triangle, there are looser connections, as autonomous schools may choose whether or not to engage support. The exception is a direct accountability mechanism by which the Inspectorate may obligate schools to engage external support, in the case that inspection processes have identified quality concerns. In reality, there are strong and more frequent connections between many schools and their pedagogical advisory services, indicated by the shorter and wider arrow. However, there are some significant ‘support gaps’. Not all schools belong to an umbrella organisation that offers pedagogical advisory services. This is the case for the umbrella organisation for smaller, independent schools and it often reflects the diversity in nature of their particular pedagogical identities, e.g. Steiner schools. Representatives from all umbrella organisations noted the varying capacity of schools to work with quality assurance. This is borne out in evidence from school inspections (see Chapter 5).

The work of the pedagogical advisory services is demand driven; which means that they mainly work with those schools that are open to support. Some underlined frustrations with the limited reach for their pedagogical advisors in schools that may benefit from their support, but which do not look for it. Representatives from the Flemish Provincial Education (POV) advised that the network had invested significant time in nurturing relationships with its schools to close effectively this ‘support gap’ over recent years, building trust in the value of the support it offers. There was a recognition within some umbrella organisations of examining how they could sharpen their own approaches. Representatives from the KOV underlined the greater focus on accountability within the pedagogical advisory services for the effectiveness of the support they offered.

Schools are responsible for the quality of the education they provide and standardised tests will provide regular information in a comparative light. This is expected to stimulate more critical self-reflection and professional discussion. However, Pedagogical Advisory Services see a role to support schools in contextualising and interpreting the results of standardised tests, and implementing concrete actions to improve quality. Representatives report that schools and teachers are extremely comfortable with summative assessment for students, but less familiar with using evidence for discussion on school development. Some networks reported they had invested in working with schools to analyse feedback, whether from their own standardised tests, the central assessments (peilingen) or international assessments, so this will provide fertile ground for working with the results of the new standardised tests. See also Chapter 5 for an overview of varying school capacity.

At the base of the triangle, the OECD team reflects feedback during discussions with the inspectorate and the pedagogical advisory services on their strengthened professional ties. This is anchored in the recent co-construction of the OK quality framework and expectations for greater alignment in feedback to schools (see below). The development of the OK quality framework marks a significant shift in efforts to make accountability processes more meaningful for schools. Three major principles of this new inspection approach (Inspectie 2.0) introduced in September 2018 are that schools, pedagogical advisory services and the inspectorate share the same reference framework for education quality; that the inspectorate builds upon the school’s internal quality assurance; and that the inspectorate minimises administrative burden for schools (Flemish Education Inspectorate, 2018[12]). As this is progressively rolled out, the expectation is that the connections on all sides of the triangle will be strengthened.

Although at relatively early stages of implementation, the OECD team noted high levels of appreciation for the OK quality framework as an anchor for school accountability and development processes. In particular, several stakeholders referred to the breadth of areas covered to capture ‘school quality’. The OK framework was introduced two years ago and presents 37 areas of educational quality. During discussions with the OECD team, all stakeholders made the point that feedback from standardised tests should not distort or narrow this broader understanding of quality.

The OK quality framework is formulated “openly and invitingly” and encourages schools to develop their own quality policy and improvement path (Flemish Education Inspectorate and Flemish Ministry of Education and Training, 2018[13]). This embodies an important principle to promote functional accountability exchanges, as it establishes an agreement on core objectives and organises discretionary room for schools and the inspectorate. The focus of external evaluations on schools’ process of self-evaluation, rather than their content also enables schools to develop their education quality along local notions.

During discussions with the OECD team, parental representatives voiced support for this broad definition of school quality and how it provided common guidance for all Flemish schools and networks. Earlier OECD reviews on evaluation and assessment in OECD countries had pointed to the importance of promoting a ‘common language’ for all aspects of school evaluation (OECD, 2013[14]). Representatives from the different umbrella organisations reported that the development and ongoing implementation of the OK quality framework had ‘eased tensions’ between these two pillars of the quality triangle (Figure 6.2). However, teacher union representatives still perceive the quality framework as ‘too removed’ from the work of teachers, although they noted that this may become more familiar over coming years.

Organising agreement and areas of disagreements on expectations of education is a challenging process, yet an essential foundation for more constructive accountability relationships that promote learning. Accountability is an often-conflictual enterprise and across the public sector, there are often disputes over the substantive goals and how success should be measured (Overman, 2020[15]; Olsen, 2013[5]). All the more true in education, as it is a field with strong beliefs, tied to identities and experiences. These values and identities shape the objectives stakeholders expect education to deliver (Burns, Köster and Fuster, 2016[16]; Hooge, 2016[17]). In such a context, mobilising agreement among stakeholders on a fundamental set of objectives is instrumental to more constructive accountability relationships – even if they disagree on other objectives (Blanc, 2018[18]; Lind and Tyler, 1988[19]). At the core of the OK quality framework is the concept ‘development of the learner’, which generated a broad support base. The development of the framework represents a considerable achievement in the Flemish education system which is traditionally rooted in ‘freedom of education’.

Previous work within the OECD strategic education governance project has highlighted the development of the OK quality framework as an exemplary initiative towards a more systemic and system-wide evaluation practice and an excellent opportunity to build trust and create ownership of schools and teachers (Shewbridge, Fuster and Rouw, 2019[2]). Despite efforts in the past to communicate and publish the former ‘CIPO’ inspection framework (quality indicators for school context, input, processes and output), schools were not very acquainted with it (Shewbridge et al., 2011[20]). A long inspection cycle (every 10 years) and a deliberate approach not to focus on school self-evaluation compounded the remoteness of the inspection framework from the daily work of schools. It may have led to costly duplication of data gathering and evaluation processes in schools and significantly reduced the potential of inspections to help schools build their evaluative capacity and report progress effectively.

The development of the OK quality framework was conceived as a partnership to develop a common vision and placed priority on stakeholder involvement. A first step in developing the framework consisted of an in depth literature review and an extensive stakeholder survey during the 2016-17 school year. This gathered feedback from pupils and students, parents, teachers and school leaders, pedagogical advisors, teacher trainers, education inspectors, experts and trade unions. The stakeholder feedback and research review played an important role in the development of the framework and are summarised in the background ‘sources’ report (Bronnendocument referentiekader voor onderwijskwaliteit) (Flemish Education Inspectorate and Flemish Ministry of Education and Training, 2018[13]).

This broad ownership of the OK quality framework is a solid basis to promote more constructive accountability relationships in the Flemish system. Having a broad agreement on substantive expectations can lessen the frustrations experienced when accountability is perceived to be purely based on compliancy. If a forum believes an actor does not work towards the forum’s substantive expectations or does not share the same priorities, forums tend to focus on ensuring compliance and are more likely to concentrate on enforcing more defensible, less ambiguous, and more readily demonstrable standards (Busuioc and Lodge, 2016[21]; Overman, 2020[15]; Behn, 2001[22]). In a climate in which forums focus on enforcing compliance, actors may choose to carry out their substantive work in ways that is most defensible to minimise the chance of breaches. They may feel compelled to preserve the status quo rather than taking the risks necessary to learn what is optimal (Smith, 1995[23]).

Several stakeholders described to the OECD team how the inspection approach had moved towards placing more emphasis on feedback for school development. Prior to 1991, there was one entity inspecting and advising Flemish schools, however the Constitutional Court declared that the Inspectorate had a strict evaluation purpose and could not go beyond a good or bad evaluation judgement. This led to a strict division, for several decades, between the inspectors controlling schools and umbrella organisations supporting schools. However, reportedly, this strictly evaluative form of inspection had not brought new information or insight for schools, it simply documented what they already knew. This gave rise to feedback that inspection did not have much impact on school practices or lead to educational change (Penninckx et al., 2015[24]). Regardless of the reason for it, an accountability exchange focusing on strict compliance can ‘hollow out’ the exchange. It can limit reflection on substantive conduct and lead to less information about practice from which to learn (Behn, 2001[22]).

The evolution of the Flemish Inspectorate’s approach has sought to address concerns raised by stakeholders, namely their need to learn more from the inspection process. The Flemish Inspectorate has put stronger focus on the importance of professional dialogue – indeed its strapline is “Inspecting in dialogue (Doorlichten in dialoog)” – and trained inspectors in how to improve feedback to school principals and teachers. This is in line with the general consensus among the European professional network of school inspectors (SICI) that ‘the more communication there is, the more trust there is between teachers, schools and inspectors’ (Manes-Bonnisseau, 2019[25]). Engaging in meaningful professional dialogue can support a more functional accountability relationship. It can help align substantive expectations for the accountability exchange and create a mutual perception of working towards a common ‘greater good’ (Fry, 1995[26]; Fahey and Köster, 2019[3]).

While teacher unions made the point that they ‘would always be critical of inspection’, during discussions with the OECD team they also communicated respect for the rich feedback from inspectors rooted in professional dialogue. This would seem to indicate that the inspectorate strapline of “inspecting in dialogue” is communicated through actual inspection processes and appreciated by educators. Recent research found that teachers in Flemish primary schools were generally positive about feedback from school inspections, but in particular noted the importance of the perceived relevance of the feedback teachers received (Quintelier, De Maeyer and Vanhoof, 2020[27]).

The inclusion of former school leaders within the inspectorate can support the credibility of the inspection processes among educational professionals. This can support more functional and meaningful accountability exchanges (Figure 6.1). If actors consider a given forum as authoritative and legitimate to inquire about a specific work, they tend to render accounts more completely and accurately in the accountability exchange. In the context of performance feedback, this had been found to promote critical reflection on substantive work (Mero, Guidice and Brownlee, 2007[28]; Curtis, Harvey and Ravden, 2005[29]). Conversely, when actors do not consider those holding them to account as capable, any input from accountability exchanges is more easily dismissed (Fahey and Köster, 2019[3]).

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