Thoughts on accountability in top-performing systems

Reading time: 2 minutes. Relevant publication: Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan

Author Lucy Crehan discusses the difference between school accountability in England and the US, as well as in Finland, Canada, Japan, Singapore and Shanghai

Let’s take two identical twins, Conor and Edward, separated at birth and brought up in different continents. Neither have special needs, but nor are they natural academics. Let’s say that Conor in British Columbia, Canada is ‘not yet within expectations’ at the end of primary school (despite the early intervention from qualified teachers). He gets extra ongoing support to help him meet those expectations, but even if he doesn’t reach them now, he’ll be in the same class as his friends at middle school. He will still be expected to work towards the standards set for the first year of middle school, and be exposed to the same content and teaching, like everyone else, but he will get extra support to help him reach them. When he goes to high school, he might take one less elective subject, allowing him to spend that extra time in the support room to ensure he keeps up with his friends in class. I should add at this point that there is no need to tell Conor that he is ‘not yet within expectations’ in a certain subject – especially while he is in primary school – but to acknowledge as teachers and parents that he is below where he should be so that he gets sufficient support in keeping up, and doesn’t fall further behind.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Edward in England hasn’t got to Level 4 by the end of primary school, despite extra input from teaching assistants. But his secondary schooling experience will be quite different. His secondary school might look at the level he achieved in his end of primary school exams, see that he has achieved a Level 3, and on his first day at his new school, put him in a lower set in a class with other students who are at Level 3. These children will most likely be given easier tasks, rather than extra support to complete the same tasks as their peers. They will cover less content, putting them at a further disadvantage when it comes to exams. And they often will be set lower targets, sometimes visibly marking them out from their friends who managed to score a Level 4 at age 11. A lot less is expected of Edward.

While the intentions behind progress measures and target grades are good – to make ‘floor standards’ fairer to schools with a more challenging intake – there are all sorts of reasons why the latter are unhelpful. They lead to lower aspirations for students who begin at a lower starting point, and when shared with students, encourage a fixed mindset idea that intelligence is something you either have or you don’t (can you get more ‘fixed’ than having a ‘D’ stuck on the front of your book before you’ve even written anything in it?). Even when shared only with teachers, they affect teachers’ expectations of students, which can have a negative impact on students’ prospects . There is no strong evidence that setting goals is helpful at all , and that’s when the goals are set by the individual pursuing them, let alone when the goals are imposed by others.

So how do Canadian provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario get around this tricky issue of holding schools accountable, when they have differing intakes? Do they mean the same thing as we do by ‘accountability’?

While pondering upon the question, I right-clicked on ‘accountability’ in my Word document to look at its synonyms, and four alternatives came up: ‘answerability’, ‘responsibility’, ‘liability’ and ‘culpability’. This is rather handy, as they can help me neatly explain the difference between school accountability in England and the United States, and school accountability in Finland, Canada, Japan, Singapore and Shanghai. In all these countries that I’ve been to on this trip, school accountability has not meant ‘liability’ or ‘culpability’, but ‘answerability’ and ‘responsibility’; each head teacher or principal is held responsible for the running of their school, and has to be able to answer for him or herself in explaining why they do what they do to a representative (usually an ex-head) from their local educational body.

If they don’t fulfil their responsibilities, or they can’t provide good reasons or answers for why results are dropping or why parents are complaining, then they might well lose their job. But if results are dropping and they demonstrate that they are aware of it, that they are investigating the causes and that they are putting into place new programmes or training to help address it, then they have nothing to fear. A superintendent in Ontario explained, “But it’s gradual, no one expects a school to change by 40 per cent in one year. What we do want to show, though, is that we’re on a continuous improvement path.”


  • Rosenthal R, Jacobson L. Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review 1968;3(1):16–20.
  • King LA, Burton CM. The hazards of goal pursuit. In: Chang EC, Lawrence J (eds). Virtue, Vice, and Personality: The Complexity of Behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, xxvi, 2003:53–69.
Cleverlands: The secrets behind the success of the world’s education superpowers was released in paperback on Thursday 8th February. Order your copy.

Read more from Lucy Crehan on the SSAT blog: Intrinsic motivation in Chinese students

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