The government is making some assumptions about so-called ‘stuck’ or ‘intractable’ schools that need to be closely examined. One of these assumptions is that placing a small group of failing schools in special measures will cause them to improve in order to avoid job losses, bad reputation and school closure.
It is further assumed that multi-academy trusts will adopt schools with persistent difficulties and provide stronger leadership to resolve these – but it is also assumed that if failing schools don’t improve, they will ultimately disappear as a natural consequence of low enrolment and sanctions.
However, there is a group of schools in England that Ofsted has judged to be failing for more than a decade. Paradoxically, they have been unable to improve, nor have they disappeared. This would suggest that the competitive educational quasi-market falls short when trying to understand the complexities of the system.
We hope our current two year study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation will provide some answers. We are exploring the extent to which the context of these schools, their students’ backgrounds and factors such as staff turnover help to explain their current position. We will also conduct in-depth case studies to bring schools’ own voices into the debate.
But how big is the problem of persistently failing schools in England? Official answers have been elusive. HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman coined the term ‘intractable’ at the launch of Ofsted’s 2016/2017 Annual Report. In her words, “the ‘intractables’ (…) are the schools – around 130 of them – that have never been judged good at any point in the last decade”.
However, after conducting further analysis, Ofsted identified 490 of them (290 primary, 190 secondary and 10 pupil referral units and special schools). It also changed its label to ‘stuck’: “we are concerned about the small but persistent group of ‘stuck’ schools – schools that have not improved enough over many years”.
Ofsted subsequently defined a ‘stuck’ school as “a school (including its predecessor if it has converted to become an academy) that has had consistently weak inspection outcomes throughout the last 13 years”. After excluding from their analysis 75 schools that had had less than 4 full inspections, the number reduced to 415.
Regardless of how we measure and define ‘stuck’, the proportion of state-funded schools in England that would fit these definitions is small (from 0.6% to 2%). However, even these percentages mean that thousands of children are affected. The problem is important and cannot be ignored.
Being called ‘stuck’ becomes a ‘meme’; a concept which spreads like a virus amongst the school community and which then sticks to those teaching and learning in that school. How fair and helpful is it to be called ‘stuck’?
From a quality and equity perspective, it is essential to avoid labels that become stigma. Previous research, studying similar schools in a different context, found several critical factors that explained whether schools went into vicious or virtuous cycles after receiving failing inspection reports. These were: whether or not parents took their children from school, and whether the school worked its way up to a positive inspection judgement before the reputation of being a failing school stuck.
Even if a ‘stuck’ school receives a good inspection grade, this does not immediately feed back into the system. In order to avoid bad judgements becoming persistent, we need to find a new language that moves away from deficit approaches. Terms, such as ‘priority schools’, ‘schools in challenging circumstances’, ‘schools in lower-income communities’, ‘under-resourced schools’ or ‘turnaround schools’ can lead us in the right direction.
We hope that by bringing to the debate the schools’ own voices, our research will help in building a new narrative which will bring change to the system.
Photo by Eric Kilby via Creative Commons