‘Stuck’ schools: are Ofsted judgements stopping them from getting out of the rut?

Bernie Munoz-Chereau, Melanie Ehren and Jo Hutchinson.

A few days ago Ofsted announced that they are seeking a ‘judgement-free approach’ to stuck schools. These schools have been consistently judged less than good for over a decade. 

Ofsted believes that these Grades 3 and 4 judgements (namely, ‘satisfactory’ or ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’) are preventing them from improving. 

The judgement unintentionally stigmatizes these schools and makes improvement even harder as the school becomes an unpopular place to teach in, a carousel of consultants try and fail to implement quick fixes, and parents move their children elsewhere. 

In their report Fight or flight? How ‘stuck’ schools are overcoming isolation, Ofsted argues that these schools need more targeted assistance, following more thorough and detailed inspections that are not tied to any judgement. How likely is this approach to work?

Our past research highlights how judgements have a clear impact on school improvement and how schools respond to inspections. These judgements can make or break head teachers’ careers and set the standards for schools to work towards throughout the year. Even when schools are not scheduled for an inspection, head teachers aim to ensure its documents, and assessment, teaching and leadership practices are aligned to the inspection framework so that they will receive a good or outstanding assessment when Ofsted comes. 

Being ‘inspection-ready’ is perceived as common good practice. Moving to a judgement-free approach for schools who are failing is unlikely to change this. These schools have already received a failing assessment and their reputation of ‘failing’ will likely only change when improvement is confirmed with a more positive judgement. Also, because other schools will keep receiving a good or outstanding judgement, it is too easy to figure out why ‘stuck’ schools have not received their grades. Unless the whole inspection system becomes judgement-free, it is unlikely to work.

The ‘judgement-free approach’ is commendable because it includes a deeper diagnosis during the inspection. Ofsted offers stuck schools tailored, specific and pragmatic advice that suits their circumstances, but Flight or fight rightly point out that these schools’ difficulties are often systemic and out of their own control. These issues include undersubscription resulting from an education quasi-market that encourages parents to ‘vote with their feet’ instead of fighting to improve teaching and learning, geographical socio-economic disadvantages and isolation, declining industry or jobs markets and a lack of broader cultural opportunities.

We also know from previous research  that as schools with low Ofsted grades and students who are more difficult to teach are disempowered in the quasi-market, the more disadvantaged groups and the more vulnerable children end up in the ‘stuck’ schools. This happens because disadvantaged groups find themselves less able to vote with their feet, often because of the proximity criteria used for admissions to oversubscribed schools.

Ofsted also found some reasons to become stuck that are under the control of these schools: having a deeply embedded resistance to change in the school’s culture, a chaotic school organisation with a high turn-over of head teachers and teachers, or a struggle to implement the many improvement initiatives from central and local government, few of which have proved successful according to Ofsted.

A more diagnostic inspection approach would need to enable schools to address the challenges that they can tackle. This requires a better understanding of what ‘being stuck’ means for schools in different locations, with different student populations, and the types of challenges they are facing. 

However, if this is not coupled with a wider recognition of the range of systemic problems ‘stuck’ schools face but are not responsible for, they will remain stuck.

By understanding the context of these schools and how they have become ‘stuck’ over time, the support of these schools, either from Ofsted or others can become more effective. In our current two year study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we are aiming to develop this knowledge. In doing so we hope to inform Ofsted’s work with these schools, and most importantly support the schools themselves in providing a high quality education in the most difficult circumstances. 

This is a task they have, until now, unfortunately been held solely responsible for. If anything, removing their Ofsted judgement acts as a signal that improvement of these schools is the responsibility of the entire system.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in accountability and inspection, Schools
3 comments on “‘Stuck’ schools: are Ofsted judgements stopping them from getting out of the rut?
  1. This is fascinating. I was in school leadership from 1998 to 2018 and know that the “old” style of 35-40 page inspections from before 2004 were vastly more useful to my staff and to school improvement than the back-of-fag-packet-written-by-a-robot things that have been churning out since. I have been a head of schools that were graded 2 and 3. The inspection that graded us satisfactory in 2012 was of no use at all EXCEPT for what it said we were doing well. When you are running a school with difficulties, they are in your face each hour. What we need is the confidence to get beyond that and if Ofsted can do that, even in their usual cack-handed way, then that could be a breakthrough. Even better would be some effective liaison between school improvement people, either in MATs or LAs, and the inspectors. Grading a school does make it somehow the same as others in that category – in our city there are half a dozen schools rated inadequate, and none of them have the same problems as the others! Between them they have some great practice! I think your comment at the end, about responsibility for school improvement being shared across the system, will undermine inter-school competition and this could really be a great thing in some localities.

  2. This is like coming across a drunk just emerged from the pub scrabbling about under a lamp post

    He says he has lost his car keys, so a group forms around him to help him look for them.

    After a while one of the helpers asks, “Are you sure you dropped them here?”

    To which he replies,” No, I dropped them over there by that dark wall”.

    “So why are you looking here?”

    “Because this is where the light is”.

    Which brings me to the very important article published this week by Education Datalab

    You can find it here with my further comments

    https://ffteducationdatalab.org.uk/2020/01/are-we-looking-in-the-wrong-place-to-improve-attainment/?utm_source=FFT+Education+Datalab&utm_campaign=9ca02249b) a-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_01_09_10_35&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_69bf38d335-9ca02249ba-211281873

    It makes the point that the variance in the true effectivemess of schools (rather than the OfSTED judgements of them) is tiny compared to the variance in the ability of the pupils that attend them, which we all know OfSTED completely fails to take account of.

    This is massively important because while OfSTED is ‘scabbling about under the lamp post’, the key that schools need to concentrate on effective teaching methods to raise the cognitive of all pupils of all abilities, remains hidden in the dark.

  3. An excellent piece of work – my take here: https://twitter.com/TeacherToolkit/status/1219536512720818178

    I would love to be involved in the Nuffield work…

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