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.