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Location location location: how the ‘wrong’ one can put schools in a difficult spot and the right kind of inspection could help pull them out

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 December 2020

Melanie Ehren, Jo Hutchinson and Bernie Munoz-Chereau.

Where schools are located can make a big difference to their outcomes, and the pandemic is making the geographical gap worse in a number of ways. In remote or deprived areas, parents often have limited access to the internet, and this has severely limited schools’ ability to teach online during lockdowns and closures.

Now that students have returned to school, teachers and school leaders are tasked with the enormous challenge of making up for lost time. In remote or deprived areas, these challenges are even greater. In its 2020 report on ‘stuck schools’ – those struggling to improve over more than a decade – Ofsted looked at how location – particularly geographical remoteness and level of deprivation – relates to school performance. The Inspectorate said ‘a system of deeper inspection and better support’ was needed to improve education for children in these schools. This emphasis in tackling schools that are deemed less than ‘good’ is sustained in  Ofsted Annual Report 2019-2020 launched today.

Now more than ever, inspection needs to use place-based approaches to take into account the related challenges. Assessment of school quality needs to take local context into account and offer feedback to help schools improve.

One way to do this is ‘place-based scrutiny’. In East Perthshire, Education Scotland, responsible for inspecting schools, joined other services such as health in such an exercise. It showed how a team of external Inspectorates and internal evaluators could use a holistic approach to answer questions such as:

  1. What is it like to live in this community?
  2. How well are services collaborating to improve outcomes for people living there?
  3. Is our collective activity addressing or tackling inequalities?

The scrutiny aimed to identify what issues need to be addressed to improve the lives of the people living in the area. Place-based scrutiny does not use the usual approach to inspection such as performance indicators. It offers participants a systematic way to explore issues and determine resolutions through shared enquiry, reflection, and dialogue. It enables those involved to make better-informed, evidence-based decisions about issues that are directly related to improvement.

Location-based challenges of ‘stuck’ schools

The challenges of place are not new. Researchers have studied them for many years, investigating how location-based difficulties vary across different parts of the country how they affect educational attainment and social skills.

Research has shown how the level of deprivation in an area poses resource constraints for schools and reproduces inequality over time, but these constraints operate differently across different contexts. A relevant distinction can be made between geographically remote locations and disadvantaged neighbourhoods in major cities and their outskirts.

Our own work suggests that regionally, the prevalence of stuck schools is highest in Yorkshire and the Humber (17%), West Midlands (15%), South East, East Midlands and East of England (14%, respectively). In contrast, a minority of stuck schools are located in London (5%) and the North East (4%).

Table 1: Location of stuck schools by region

Region All schools Stuck % of schools % of Stuck
Yorkshire 2,256 100 11% 17%
West Midlands 2,381 86 11% 15%
South East 3,344 83 15% 14%
East Midlands 2,042 81 9% 14%
East of England 2,553 79 12% 14%
North West 3,175 55 14% 9%
South West 2,377 47 11% 8%
London 2,504 28 11% 5%
North East 1,142 21 5% 4%
TOTAL 21,774 580 100% 100%

Our work also suggests that stuck schools are mostly located in areas of urban density,  such as urban cities and towns (53%) and  urban major conurbations (27%). Geographical isolation has implications for socioeconomic opportunities and access to further schooling, but these opportunities may also be limited in other areas, such as outskirts of, or specific neighbourhood, in major cities. 

Table 2: Sparsity of stuck schools

Schools Sparsity All schools Stuck % of schools % of Stuck
Urban city and town 8,782 306 41% 53%
Urban major conurbation 6,667 157 31% 27%
Rural town and fringe 2,285 47 10% 8%
Urban minor conurbation 731 45 3% 8%
Rural village 2,357 16 11% 3%
Rural hamlet 952 9 4% 2%
TOTAL 27,797 580 100% 100%

Schools in the first category – geographically isolated – tend to be in places which are unattractive to live in because there are insufficient cultural, employment or higher education opportunities. There is limited chance to collaborate or compete with other schools, because there are so few of them, and this may create a culture of inwardness and stasis. For example, coastal and rural schools[1] with limited access to public transport were seen to struggle with teacher recruitment and retention and to enjoy less parental and community engagement.

Schools in the second category – highly disadvantaged neighbourhoods in major cities typically face challenges associated with negative childhood development, low birth weight, behavioural problems, injury and child abuse.

‘Stuck schools’ in both types of location tend to describe themselves as a ‘dumping ground’ in having to educate a disproportionate share of children who are likely to struggle at school. Having a challenging student population can be the result of parental choice, but also of decisions around enrolment at a higher level.

Implications for inspection

Having a high proportion of disadvantaged learners will likely affect a school’s inspection outcome. As Hutchinson found (2016), schools in England with a disadvantaged intake or with a high proportion of pupils with low prior attainment, are five times more likely to be rated inadequate than those with higher socioeconomic intakes, and less than half as likely to be rated outstanding. Similarly, after analysing ten years of Ofsted inspections, Greany and Higham (2018) reported that schools judged good or outstanding tended to have reduced proportions of students eligible for Free School Meals. The opposite was true for schools judged as less than good.

Such studies suggest that the inspection framework does not sufficiently take into account the specific challenges that failing schools are facing. Ofsted knows that ‘stuck’ schools need a type of inspection that will recognise and support their special circumstances.




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One Response to “Location location location: how the ‘wrong’ one can put schools in a difficult spot and the right kind of inspection could help pull them out”

  • 1
    Terry Pearson wrote on 8 December 2020:

    A very informative and useful blog which illustrates clearly and concisely that Where schools are located can make a big difference to their outcomes. I do question the idea though that providing a different kind of inspection to so called ‘stuck’ schools is a suitable response.

    Ofsted moved to proportionate inspection shortly after publication of the National Audit Office (NAO) report ‘Improving poorly performing schools’ (2006). Since then, Ofsted has continually declared that proportionate inspection has enabled the inspectorate to target inspection according to risk. This has, according to the inspectorate, enabled inspection resources to be concentrated where they are needed most and can have the greatest impact.

    Stuck schools have received much attention from Ofsted for a while. Although the frequency of visits from Ofsted has varied between ‘stuck’ schools, it has been intense. Examples of the intensity schools have experienced include; 17 visits over a period of ten years, 13 visits over six years and 10 visits over four years. It is not uncommon for a stuck school to have been visited by the inspectorate three times in one year.

    Ofsted may be aware that the inspection framework does not sufficiently take into account the specific challenges faced by ‘stuck’ schools. Nevertheless, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that a longer, deeper inspection approach with schools that have been judged continuously by the inspectorate to be less than good for more than a decade will help them improve their Ofsted rating.