Improving struggling schools

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The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) is a key mechanism for the government to ensure that its funding is well spent so that the nation’s children have equal access to the high quality of education they are entitled to. Education is also a key vehicle via which recent governments have sought to realise their aspirations for social mobility: this has precipitated sustained attention to narrowing the socio-economic gap in educational attainment. Professor Becky Francis FAcSS, then Director of Education at the RSA, initiated a piece of research, working in collaboration with Ofsted, to investigate the issue of school quality in relation to pupil social background.

Professor Francis and her team noticed that, although there was plenty of advice on how to take a school from ‘Good to Great’, and to turn around failing schools, little attention was paid to the large proportion of schools classified by Ofsted as ‘Satisfactory’.

So they set out to map schools which had been graded successively as ‘Satisfactory’ overall and as having only ‘Satisfactory capacity to improve’ in terms of both their location and their demographic. They also analysed the relationship between socio-economic background and attendance at such schools and considered where problems seemed to lie and what might be done to help.

They found that a significant number of schools – some 16% – seemed to become stuck at ‘Satisfactory’ and that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were over-represented in these more poorly performing schools.They also found that such schools were much less likely to improve than those graded ‘Good’ and that inconsistent teaching practice was a clear common characteristic.

The researchers recommended changing the grade title ‘Satisfactory’ to one that better indicated the need for improvement, and to increase inspections for those schools not improving from this grade so that such schools could be more strongly and clearly incentivised and supported towards improving.They also suggested ways in which teaching could be improved. When the report was published Professor Francis was invited to a roundtable at No.10 on ‘coasting’ schools chaired by the then Prime Minister David Cameron, and also spoke at the RSA on a panel with Sir Michael Wilshaw, then Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.

As a result of this work Ofsted changed its designation category of ‘Satisfactory’ to ‘Requires Improvement’, to increase inspection for those schools not moving out of this category and to focus policy attention on the over-representation of working class pupils in poorer quality schools.

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