Stuck schools? An unhelpful narrative

Written by: Chris Zarraga | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Ofsted’s latest research report creates another negative and unhelpful label for those schools working in some of the most challenging circumstances...

New year, new label? January’s Fight or flight report from Ofsted introduces us to yet another label for allegedly “underperforming” schools (Ofsted, 2020; SecEd, 2020).

The report, whose full title is Fight or flight? How ‘stuck’ schools are overcoming isolation, compares schools which have improved after consistently poor Ofsted inspections against those which have not, designating the latter as “stuck”.

The report hit headlines for varying reasons, especially as it highlighted that up to 210,000 pupils are in “stuck” schools.
Schools North East – a school-led network representing 1,150 schools across the region – also made some of these headlines due to our strong response to the report, as it unhelpfully highlighted Darlington as one area with a high number of “stuck” schools, feeding into a wider false narrative around achievement and school performance in the North East.

The current narrative about the region is that while our primaries are good, our secondaries need to significantly improve. This is incorrect as it fails to take into account the underlying context of the North East region.

Adding the additional label “stuck” to schools in our region is entirely unhelpful. Not only is the term “stuck” particularly negative, it is also inaccurate, as the word alone fails to take into account the context that schools in areas such as Darlington are operating in.

The report does state explicitly that this label is not intended to apportion blame and neither is this a new Ofsted category. The report does not expect schools alone to be responsible for improvement, either. However, these nuances are lost when the headlines are dominated by Ofsted simply stating that a school is “stuck”.

In the case of Darlington, its schools not only have more disadvantaged pupils than the national average (based on the number of pupils on free school meals), but crucially those disadvantaged pupils have also been living in poverty much longer than their peers elsewhere. Nationally, four per cent of students have been FSM-eligible their entire lives, but in Darlington it is six per cent.

Research from the Durham University Evidence Centre for Education has shown the effects of this, with every year a child is eligible for FSM negatively affecting educational progress (Gorard & Siddiqui, 2019).

When this context is taken into account, schools and students in Darlington are doing as well as in any other area in the country.

Indeed, analysis from the FFT Education Datalab shows that when Progress 8 scores are plotted against Contextualised Progress 8 scores, every local authority in the North East of England improves.

In the past, Ofsted has heavily focused on measures of progress and attainment that ignore long-term deprivation. It is now very promising that the new Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019) is moving away from this, to more accurately judge the quality of teaching provided.

At Schools North East we will be looking closely at the changes in Ofsted ratings of North East schools inspected under the new framework to see if it actually is addressing the previous imbalance in the accountability system.

As a network representing the schools in the North East, we want to see both understanding of the context our schools are operating in and a much more positive and accurate narrative promoted around education in the region.

These are among the key recommendations in our recently published Manifesto for North East Education (2019). The manifesto lists 10 recommendations for all political parties and policy-makers.

The manifesto highlights how the continued negative and false narrative is extremely damaging to North East schools, teachers and students and has a long-term impact on recruitment, retention and aspiration in the region.

However, in spite of the negative aspects of the report, there are elements to be optimistic about. Ofsted correctly identifies that context is a key factor. However, the report does not go far enough in acknowledging the full significance of its impact. Equally, it is great that the report does note that “stuck” schools are operating in challenging circumstances, throwing a welcome spotlight on a toxic mixture of geographical isolation, unstable pupil populations and poor parental motivation.

Furthermore, a number of the points made by Ofsted in relation to context mirror key recommendations in our Manifesto for North East Education. They also point towards the need for context-specific initiatives as the most effective way to support the most challenged schools, emphasising the need for flexibility in school improvement measures, aligning with our call for targeted support for schools.

Broadly, Ofsted appears to be making moves in the right direction to ensure that the system of accountability can actually be a force for school improvement, recognising that context does have an impact, focusing on quality of teaching, and acknowledging the need for greater support for those schools that need it most.

This must be the basis of more serious work to take into account the context, so that the right support can be given to schools that are providing quality education in challenging circumstances, and that a positive narrative can be promoted around education in the North East that will attract more teachers to the profession.

Our on-going work on the Manifesto for North East Education will focus on these issues, with our first Policy Roundtable event taking place on February 27. This will bring together headteachers from across the region to discuss specific contexts and how we can promote a specific narrative, and encourage wider government, policy-makers and media to do so as well.

  • Chris Zarraga is director of Schools North East, a regional school-led network representing 1,150 schools.

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