Ministers finally define what a 'coasting' school is – but more details are still to come

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The Department for Education has finally set out what it means by ‘coasting’. However, a lack of detail means school leaders are still in the dark about what they will need to achieve to avoid intervention. Pete Henshaw reports

Secondary schools have at last been given a definition of what “coasting" will mean under the government's new intervention proposals.

However, the definition issued by education secretary Nicky Morgan on Tuesday (June 30) is still not complete and will leave school leaders unsure as to what they need to achieve come 2016 – the first year when “coasting" schools will be named – to avoid intervention.

School leaders have said the policy is “muddled" and “arbitrary", while teachers have pointed out that many schools judged “good" by Ofsted could soon be at risk of losing their headteachers and top staff.

The Department for Education (DfE) has confirmed that academisation is to be the ultimate sanction for “coasting" schools that fail to improve results. Ministers believe that hundreds of schools will fall into the new category come 2016.

However, the announcement this week came as a new research report revealed “no significant link" between academy status and improved pupil progress. Critics have also said that many academy schools will also be considered “coasting" under the new measure.

The coasting measure

The DfE has said that the “coasting" measure, which is to be introduced via the Education and Adoption Bill currently passing through Parliament, will be defined over rolling three-year periods, the first of which will run from 2014 to 2016.

In 2014 and 2015, a school will be “coasting" if fewer than 60 per cent of children achieve five A* to C GCSEs including English and mathematics and they are “below the median level of expected progress".

In 2016, they will be coasting if they fall below “a level set against the new Progress 8 measure". However, the DfE has said that this level will not be set until after the 2016 results are out in order “to ensure it is set at a suitable level". A statement said: “A school will have to be below those levels in all three years to be defined as 'coasting'."

Ms Morgan said: “I want the message to go out loud and clear, that education isn't simply about pushing children over an artificial borderline, but instead about stretching every pupil to unlock their potential and give them the opportunity to get on in life. I know that schools and teachers will rise to the challenge, and the extra support we'll offer to coasting schools will help them do just that."

However, it means that schools will not know what they have to achieve in 2016 in order to avoid being labelled as “coasting". The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) warned that a school could “find itself in the position of having met every target set for it at the time and then discovering after the fact that this wasn't enough".

After 2014-2016, the judgement will be based on a rolling three-year period, meaning that by 2018 the definition of “coasting" will be based entirely on the Progress 8 measure and will not have an attainment element.

The DfE statement adds: “The 'coasting' definition will capture performance in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Therefore we will not know until 2016 how many schools will be captured within the definition. However, based on current performance we expect the definition to apply to hundreds of schools."

Ms Morgan said that identified “coasting" schools will be offered help from “the best education experts in the country" to improve results. Schools will be expected to produce a “clear plan for improvement".

The eight regional school commissioners, supported by elected headteacher boards from their local communities, will assess whether a school's plan is “credible".

The DfE added: “Those that can improve will be supported to do so by our team of expert heads, and those that cannot will be turned into academies under the leadership of our expert school sponsors."

Reaction from the profession

“Muddled", “unfair", “arbitrary" – the reaction from teachers and school leaders to the announcement this week has been largely critical.

The Association of School and College Leaders pointed out that consultation about the definition has not even been completed. General secretary Brian Lightman added: “The criteria it sets out for what constitutes a coasting school is muddled.

“If the government wishes to introduce such a measure it should surely be entirely on the progress that pupils make, rather than attainment. Otherwise, its policy will focus most attention on schools that are in challenging circumstances, rather than being a measure that assesses progress in all schools, including those with high-attaining intakes.

“And where does the figure of 60 per cent come from, given that the floor target is 40 per cent? It seems arbitrary."

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, pointed out that schools have been waiting 45 days for this information.

She continued: “Very many good secondary and primary schools – as defined by Ofsted, and as defined by parents – will now be classified as coasting. They will now stand the risk of losing their heads and other staff as uncertainty reigns in their school.

“Schools are already under enormous pressure to placate the whims of government and Ofsted. This arbitrary target will only serve to sharpen teaching to the test and a concentration on borderline students. This already results in a narrowed curriculum and, for many pupils, disengagement."

The NAHT said the delay in defining “coasting" had caused “unnecessary fear". General secretary Russell Hobby added: “The measure is retrospective, applying as it does over 2014 and 2015 as well as 2016. A school could find itself in the position of having met every target set for it at the time and then discovering after the fact that this wasn't enough. This is not a good way to encourage people to take on the leadership of challenging schools – an issue the government is struggling with.

“There have also been so many changes to examinations and tests that we don't know how results will be calculated or adjusted in future years – schools will be navigating blind in this territory."

There has been welcome for the fact that forced academy conversion is not to be the default option for “coasting" schools – however, school leaders are calling for more clarity about the process that will be involved.

Mr Hobby continued: “Forced academisation is only on the cards after all other options for improvement have been exhausted. Our concern is how this process will work. Will it be open and transparent, with clear notification and a real opportunity for the school to make its case? This is essential if the measures for coasting schools are to be seen as supportive rather than punitive."

The academy question

Critics of the plans have pointed out that many academy schools will also be defined as “coasting" under the measure, raising questions over the DfE's strategy of academisation.

Furthermore, a report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has this week raised questions about the effectiveness of academies over non-academy schools when it comes to pupil progress.

The study, based on 2014's GCSE results, shows “no significant difference in overall school performance between academies and similar maintained schools".

The research, commissioned by the Local Government Association, compared sponsored and converter academies that have been open for between two and four years and a group of maintained schools that had similar characteristics at the time the schools became academies.

While the report finds a statistically significant difference in favour of sponsored academies when it comes to the percentage of pupils who achieved five or more A* to C grades, it warns that “attainment progress made by pupils in sponsored and converter academies is not greater than in similar maintained schools".

It adds: “There was very little evidence of pupils of different types, such as pupils eligible for free school meals, or pupils with high or low prior ability, making relatively more progress in academy schools compared to similar maintained schools."

The profession is also concerned. Mr Lightman said: “We are pleased to see that there is an emphasis on supporting schools which are deemed to be coasting. However, it seems the eventual outcome will be to turn many of them into academies as though this is a solution in itself.

“As we have said previously, academisation is not a magic wand. Schools in challenging circumstances require individual support that takes account of their specific situation. For instance, academisation is not a solution to a severe supply shortage of high-quality teachers in key subjects like maths, science and English."

Ms Blower added: “Nicky Morgan says that coasting schools will ultimately be transformed into academies, but by her own definition very many academy schools will also be coasting.

“The education secretary continues to leave unaddressed the central questions facing education – the growing shortage of teachers and headteachers, the crisis in the supply of school places and the developing school funding problems."

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