Ofsted deep inspection plan for ‘stuck schools’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Ofsted is seeking government funding in order to inspect more deeply the 415 schools it considers to be stuck in a cycle of low performance. Pete Henshaw takes a look

Ofsted wants to undertake deeper inspection of so-called “stuck schools” in England in a bid to help them improve. Stuck schools are those trapped in a cycle of low performance and are often found in deprived or isolated areas.

A new report from Ofsted identifies 415 such schools and says that they struggle with a combination of issues including poor parental motivation, geographic isolation, problems recruiting and retaining teachers, and unstable pupil populations with constantly changing rolls.

None of the 415 have been rated good or better since September 2006 and they have all had at least four inspections during that time; 181 are secondary schools, 189 are primary, 37 are junior, and the remainder are alternative provision or special schools. The three areas with the highest proportion of stuck schools are Derby, Southend and Darlington.

Other problems in these schools identified by the report include staff that are resistant to change or conversely schools that are chaotic, “change fatigued” and lacking stability – one of the 415 schools, for example, had had 14 headteachers in 10 years.

Ofsted says it is well placed to help these 415 schools to break the cycle and its report – Fight or flight? – looks at how other schools have managed to “unstick” themselves.

The report emphasises that “stuck” is not a new category in inspection: “Being ‘stuck’ is not a new type of Ofsted category, but rather a way to analyse a problem. Therefore, we will not be publishing a list of stuck schools.”

However, Ofsted is now seeking funding from the Department for Education (DfE) to undertake more in-depth “diagnosis” of these schools.

A statement published alongside the report said: “We are recommending that the government funds Ofsted to trial a longer, deeper inspection approach with some of these schools, with the aim not of passing judgement but of enabling support to improve. We have made good progress with the DfE already.”

The report itself, which is based on visits to 10 stuck schools and 10 schools that have managed to “unstick” themselves, identifies key elements to improvement:

  • Raising expectations of children and parents.
  • High standards for teachers – even if this affects teacher retention rates.
  • An effective behaviour policy to better support teachers.
  • Improving governance.

Among the approaches taken by the unstuck schools to improve high teaching standards were using the Teachers’ Standards, improving flexibility for staff and getting the balance right between teacher turnover and quality.

On behaviour, the key according to the report, is to ensure high expectations, implement behaviour policy consistently, and understand the link between this and teacher retention.

Linked to behaviour, the report states, is having high expectations of the entire school community, including families. The report adds: “Many school leaders and teachers recognised that having sufficiently high expectations of the whole-school community – including pupils, parents and other teachers – was fundamental to their transformation.
“Sometimes, this meant changing the culture for pupils and families from one that accepted disruption and violence, to one that challenged it with clear processes.”

On governance, many schools in the report commented on a lack of “scrutiny, support and challenge” from the governing body – often because of a lack of leadership skills.

The report warns that stuck schools are too often inundated by improvement initiatives with too little attention given to the content of the support. Indeed, commenting on the report, chief inspector Amanda Spielman criticised the “carousel of consultants” – an approach that too often clouded the issues.

Instead, the report urges schools to identify specific needs and then tailor support to tackle what is going wrong.
The report concludes: “Stuck schools are complex. Their pupils face incredibly challenging social circumstances. It takes time and expertise to fully diagnose the issues within these schools. We are therefore working with the DfE to jointly review our approach to independent inspection and the support provided by others in these schools, so that the system as a whole can improve education for all children.”

Ms Spielman added: “Stuck schools are facing a range of societal problems such as cultural isolation, a jobs market skewed towards big cities and low expectations from parents. However, we have shown that schools in these places can still be good or better by holding teachers to high standards, tackling bad behaviour and getting the right leadership in place.

“Our inspectors have found that the majority of schools in challenging areas are providing children with a good education that sets them up to succeed in later life. What the remaining stuck schools need is tailored, specific and pragmatic advice that suits their circumstances – not a carousel of consultants. They are asking Ofsted to do more to help, and we agree.”

Commenting on the report, Stephen Rollett, curriculum and inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This report identifies the extremely challenging circumstances faced by some schools, but it does not examine the detrimental impact on these schools of the inspection system itself. The use of blunt judgements has a stigmatising effect on schools which makes it harder to recruit the teachers and leaders needed to secure sustainable improvement and become unstuck.

“Ofsted highlights that one problem in stuck schools is the lack of stable leadership because of a churn of headteachers. But this problem is the result of an accountability system of inspections and performance tables which is extremely harsh and makes leadership perilous. We ... need to focus more on the unintended consequences of the current approach to school accountability.”

The National Education Union also urged Ofsted to recognise its own role in creating problems for some schools. Joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “Fear of Ofsted is a key factor in school leader and teacher flight from these schools. Ofsted judgements routinely fail to recognise the work of schools in challenging areas with deprived pupil intakes.”

Further information

Fight or flight? How ‘stuck’ schools are overcoming isolation, Ofsted, January 2020: http://bit.ly/2uvbLYg


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