Do Ofsted inspections prevent sustainable improvement in ‘stuck’ schools?

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A new report on ‘stuck’ schools, defined as schools which have had three consecutive poor Ofsted judgements, asks an important question. Do Ofsted inspections prevent sustainable improvement in these schools?

The researchers found that ‘stuck’ schools face a combination of unusually challenging circumstances – including very high rates of teacher turnover and higher rates of pupil mobility. These schools were more likely to be situated in towns rather than cities and their pupil intakes were skewed with higher rates of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) – a strong marker of poverty which has the most significant effect in depressing pupil progress and achievement and higher rates of pupils with special educational needs (SEN).  These schools are also more likely to be situated in poor neighbourhoods. 

Researchers found a link between poor Ofsted grades and negative effects on ‘stuck’ schools’ progress.  They found that there was, in their words, a ‘vicious’ cycle between low Ofsted grades and increased teacher and pupil turnover.  Poor Ofsted grades, they conclude, inflict reputational damage which, paradoxically, makes a school’s climb to improvement more challenging. Ofsted judgements become a slippery slope rather than a supportive framework for these schools because they create low staff and student morale and weak professional identity.’ Stuck’ schools found it more difficult to recruit and retain staff and suffered from an increased lack of parental trust. Most worryingly, the poor reputation created by a negative Ofsted grade persisted even if these schools subsequently improved their grade.

Staff in ‘stuck’ schools have grave concerns about the fairness of Ofsted inspections – and in particular the ability of inspectors to recognise the work done in them to support pupil progress. One extremely concerning finding is that school staff’s impressions of the unfairness of Ofsted inspections are reinforced by data which shows that some ‘stuck’ schools actually achieved significantly higher rates of pupil progress than not stuck schools.  Ofsted, it would appear, has some explaining to do.

But for the government, the most challenging finding of the report is that whilst secondary schools which join a multi-academy trust (MAT) make ‘modest’ improvements in outcomes, that is not the case for primary schools where the researchers did not observe any positive or negative effect of joining a MAT. Ministerial claims of improvements in primary schools’ outcomes as a result of joining a MAT are not substantiated by the careful and detailed research in this report.  Ministers would do well to take note and realised that a change of a school’s governance is not a magic solution.

As the Education Bill makes its way through Parliament, it is important that Ministers review the impact of academisation on primary schools in the light of this important research.  Obsessed by structures, ministers are in grave danger of ignoring the factors that really can improve ‘stuck’ schools – including training and retaining enough teachers, funding these schools properly for the extra challenges they face and radically reforming the Ofsted inspection cycle – so that its judgements are more reliable and fairer.

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union

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