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Receiving Ofsted ratings ‘below good’ can act as a barrier to school improvement

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 7 June 2022

Bernardita Munoz-Chereau, Jo Hutchinson and  Melanie Ehren. 

Finding ways to solve the stubborn underperformance of around 580 schools in England is high on the government’s agenda. The Schools White Paper ‘Opportunity for All: Strong schools with great teachers for your child’ sets out the government’s plans over the coming years, with strategies to address schools with successive ‘requires improvement’ (RI) grades.

Yet since 2017 Ofsted has focused on a group of schools judged as ‘requires improvement’, ‘satisfactory’ or ‘inadequate’ in every inspection over more than a decade. Subsequently, Ofsted conducted qualitative case studies of 10 ‘stuck’ and 10 ‘unstuck’ schools. ‘Fight or flight? How ‘‘Stuck’’ schools are overcoming isolation’ reports that ‘stuck’ schools need more targeted assistance, following more thorough and detailed inspections that are not tied to overall grades .

Our two-year mixed-methods research project studying ‘Stuck’ schools’, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, concluded that receiving a series of Ofsted ratings below ‘good’ can act as a barrier to improvement.

Our Sequential Explanatory Mixed Methods Design is more robust and expands Ofsted’s work by combining quantitative and qualitative methods. We analysed secondary quantitative data such as Ofsted management information records for inspections, value-added progress of schools and pupil demographics, and school workforce, governance, location and finance data. Qualitative methods included case studies in sixteen schools where we analysed 166 documents and conducted 56 interviews and focus groups with headteachers, teachers, and governors to understand patterns of change over time and stakeholders’ experiences in ‘stuck’ schools and their comparison group.

Our ten key findings are:

  1. ‘Stuck’ schools face a combination of unusually challenging circumstances characterised by:
    1. instability (higher teacher turnover, pupil mobility and governance change rates);
    2. poverty (higher pupils’ free school meals and poor neighbourhood indicators);
    3. higher rates of children with low-level Special Educational Needs and Disability);
    4. challenging locations (middle-sized urban areas rather than large cities or rural); and
    5. slightly higher funding (a little more overall and per-pupil funding) compared to not-‘stuck’ schools.
  2. ‘Stuck’ schools are distinctive but not unique. Many other schools share most of their challenging circumstances but have managed to avoid a continuous cycle of less than good inspection judgements. The difference is not entirely down to results.
  3. The presence of good or outstanding neighbourhood schools is more important in predicting that a school will become ‘stuck’ than ‘stuck’ schools’ own performance. This is largely because of local competition.
  4. A less than good inspection judgment is a modest contributing factor in ‘stuck’ schools’ lack of improvement or decline over time.
  5. ‘Stuck’ schools’ trajectories are diverse and these differences matter, as most case study schools contested and didn’t identify with the metaphor of being ‘stuck’.
  6. According to Ofsted inspection reports, case study ‘stuck’ schools need primarily to improve their outcomes/achievements/quality of education.
  7. Monitoring inspections and full inspections received by ‘stuck’ case study schools were arguably too frequent, variable and inconsistent.
  8. Many headteachers, teachers, and governors of ‘stuck’ and ‘un-stuck’ schools valued the role of Ofsted and other support received to improve.
  9. Some stakeholders raised concerns about the validity, reliability and fairness of inspections.
  10. ‘Stuck’ schools can get ‘un-stuck’ given the right time and support.

Based on our findings we have made a series of policy recommendations to support the work of the DfE, Ofsted and practitioners working in schools facing multiple challenging circumstances such as ‘stuck’ schools:

DfE should:

  • Consider whether there is adequate support, including financial support, for ‘stuck’ schools, particularly secondaries, whose per-pupil funding is only marginally higher than other secondary schools.
  • Consider what more can be done to stabilise ‘stuck’ schools’ staff. Reducing excessively high teacher turnover, including loss of key staff and governance changes, needs to happen before the school can improve.
  • Review the positive and negative impact of academization on ‘stuck’ schools to gain insights from the experiences in primary compared to secondary schools.

Ofsted should:

  • Ensure that inspectors are properly trained to understand the significance and implications of schools working in very challenging circumstances, and the positive role they can play to support schools in their improvement journey.
  • Consider what other positive support can be given to ‘stuck’ schools, including linking them with schools that have become ‘un-stuck’ or those that have specific expertise in areas that are core challenges, such as supporting children with English as an Additional Language or refugee backgrounds.
  • Revise the cycles of full section 5 inspections and section 8 monitoring inspections to give time to implement improvements.
  • Consider changes in inspection ­– for example removing overall grades ­– to avoid the detrimental effect that a series of below good Ofsted grades is having on school improvement, especially for schools working in challenging circumstances.

The report is launched today, June 7.

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