Reasons why schools don’t improve over many years according to Ofsted

Janet Downs's picture

There are over 500 primary schools and about 200 secondary schools which have been stuck on requires improvement or satisfactory for their last two inspections, according to Ofsted’s Annual Report 2016/17.  

Of the schools inspected in 2016/17, Ofsted has identified around 80 primary schools and 52 secondary schools which have been less than good at any time since 2005.

Ofsted found common characteristics in these struggling schools:

  • Staffing problems: ‘varying combinations of unstable leadership, high staff turnover and difficulty recruiting.’
  • Monitoring inspections found green shoots of recovery, often after the appointment of new leaders, but later inspections found this improvement hadn’t been maintained.
  • Becoming an academy or joining a multi-academy trust (MAT) had no ‘material impact’ on the performance of these struggling schools.
  • Many had ‘higher-than-average proportions’ of special educational needs pupils and/or pupils with disabilities (SEND) and White British pupils from low-income backgrounds.
  • About four in five had ‘high proportions of pupils from deprived areas’.

These factors create a perfect storm locking schools in a cycle of decline.  Schools struggling in this way find difficulty in attracting and keeping the best teachers.  Aspirant heads realise that leading such a school could be career suicide while MATs may be unwilling to take them on in case their continuing struggle damages the MAT’s brand.

There are those who say Ofsted itself is part of the problem by putting too much emphasis on outcomes without taking prior achievement into account.  It’s no coincidence that selective grammars are more likely to be good or better than their neighbouring secondary moderns.  And rebranding ‘satisfactory’ to ‘requires improvement’ in 2012 immediately downgraded schools which had previously satisfied the criteria.  The ‘requires improvement’ label has been used retrospectively to show schools were failing – Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman has done just that.

There are others who say it’s the Government’s high stakes accountability measures which place more emphasis on academic achievement.  Spielman is right to say this can distort the curriculum.  And this distortion may have the most detrimental effect on SEND pupils and White British pupils from low-income backgrounds too often stereotyped as a feral underclass from sink estates.

It would be simple to suggest glib remedies: academization, importing ‘superheads’ or Teach First trainees, ‘zero tolerance’ and throwing a few million at Opportunity Areas which, as John Howson points out, are ‘seemingly not dis-similar to Labour’s Education Action Zones of the late 1990s’.  

But there is no easy solution.  


CORRECTION 13 December 2017 15.36:  the original article said 57 secondary schools had been less than good since 2005.  This should have been 52.  It has been corrected.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 13/12/2017 - 15:19

You are right that 'there is no easy solution'. However it is also true that if the same policy keeps being applied over and over again and the same patterns keeps being repeated, then a different policy is needed. The problem here in England is that the ideological commitment to a marketised education system is so strong that the DfE responds by falsifying the data to provide recurring reassurances rather than admitting that the problem lies with the ideology and not its implementation.

It is worth pointing out that this ideology had its origin with the Labour, not the Conservative Party. The disastrous Academisation plans inflicted onto Carlisle and Barrow-in Furness , were only possible because of agreement between the Labour and Conservative groups on Cumbria County Council. Although the 1988 Education Reform Act (the Baker Act) was the enabler of the marketisation ideology, nothing much happened until the Blair government was elected in 1997 (this was Thatcher's greatest regret), then things got much worse very quickly, including the introduction of Academisation on the US Charter Schools model, which has been a parallel education disaster.

In 1970 my then girlfriend (now my wife), along with another motor cycling couple, undertook a touring holiday in Ireland. Somewhere in Co Kerry we were lost and asked a local directions to our intended destination.

His reply was, " Oh dear, I wouldn't start from here". We need to re-visit such wisdom. Some examples of a different way of doing things can be found here.

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