'A vicious cycle' – poor Ofsted grades contribute to onset of challenging circumstances

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is a “vicious cycle” between low Ofsted grades, increasingly deprived pupil intakes and increased staff turnover, researchers have found.

Fewer children then enrol, leading these schools to become undersubscribed, making funding more challenging and making it harder to attract staff.

A report into the plight of England’s 580 “stuck schools” has sought to identify reasons for consistent underperformance and potential solutions for these institutions.

The research, which has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, classifies a stuck school as one that consistently received a less than good overall effectiveness inspection grade between 2005 and 2018 and for a minimum of three inspections.

The report identifies a combination of “unusually challenging circumstances” facing these schools including high teacher turnover, high pupil mobility, more disadvantaged pupils, being located in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and higher levels of SEND.

Many schools with lower Ofsted ratings can find also themselves undersubscribed, leading to less funding and therefore making improvement more difficult, especially in terms of hiring staff.

However, the report adds that many other schools share most of these challenges but have managed to avoid a continuous cycle of less than good inspection judgements.

The 580 “stuck” schools in the report include 329 were primary schools, 225 secondary schools, eight all-through schools, and 18 non-mainstream schools.

The report also says that the difference between stuck and “non-stuck” schools is not just a question of results, as some schools have improved their Ofsted grades while not improving overall attainment or progress results.

Having said this, Ofsted has itself in its own research into stuck schools reported that these schools need primarily to improve their outcomes/achievements and quality of education.

A concerning finding in the report is that after receiving an initial negative Ofsted grade, the intake of a school tends to become more disadvantaged and teacher turnover increases, both of which contribute to the difficulty in reversing the negative Ofsted judgement.

It states: “We found evidence for a cycle of events in which poor Ofsted judgements play a modest contributory role in the onset of increasingly challenging circumstances, that then make it more likely that the school experiences further poor inspection grades in subsequent years.

“There was a vicious cycle between low Ofsted grades and increasingly deprived pupil intakes, and another between low Ofsted grades and increasing levels of teacher turnover. The effect sizes for these were small indicating that they are contributory factors but not the main determinants of schools becoming or remaining ‘stuck’.”

The report’s case studies highlight the reputational damage a poor Ofsted outcome can cause, which then leads to a snowball effect. And the longer the school continues to have the less than good rating, the harder the process of school improvement becomes.

It adds: “This reputational damage works as a slippery slope, as after receiving a below good grade, case study schools faced low staff and student morale, weak professional identity, difficult recruitment, lack of parental trust, among other challenges. ‘Un-stuck’ schools described how this reputation was long-standing and very difficult to change, even after receiving a good grade.”

Other factors include the presence of good or outstanding neighbourhood schools, which the analysis found is more important in predicting whether a school will become stuck than the stuck schools’ own performance.

The report also found that many headteachers, teachers, and governors of stuck and unstuck schools “valued the role of Ofsted and other support received to improve”. However, monitoring inspections and full inspections received by the “stuck” case study schools were “arguably too frequent, variable and inconsistent”.

It states: “Stuck schools received too frequent section 5 full inspections and section 8 monitoring inspections over the period 2005 to 2021. This varied hugely, from three full inspections to six full inspections and 10 monitoring inspections. Some case study schools received up to four consecutive monitoring inspections in two years.

“Stakeholders described how too frequent Ofsted presence in the school represented over- surveillance, which did not give time to implement the required changes and made it more difficult to improve.”

The researchers conclude that schools can be “unstuck” with the right time and support. However, with the government’s recent education White Paper including an intention to force every school to join a multi-academy trust by 2030, the research warns that academisation is not a “silver bullet”.

Indeed, its analysis shows that joining a multi-academy trust showed small positive effects for secondary schools, in relation to lower teacher turnover and a lower chance of remaining “stuck”. There were no similar, positive effects for stuck primary schools.

Instead, the report encourages increased holistic support for stuck schools, including peer-to-peer guidance and greater understanding of the impact the negative judgement can have.

Co-author Jo Hutchinson, director for social mobility and vulnerable learners at the Education Policy Institute, said: “Stuck schools face many challenges such as increasing deprivation, professional isolation and very high teacher turnover. While their continuing struggle with poor inspection outcomes was not determined by these challenges, nor by the experience of receiving an adverse grading, there were nevertheless clear signs that these could make recovery more difficult.

“While academisation has helped many secondary schools to reduce the challenges they face, having a change of head teacher made things more challenging in the short term, and for primary schools, the same benefits of academisation were not evident in our analysis.”

Ruth Maisey, education programme head at the Nuffield Foundation added: "While valuing the role of Ofsted, stuck schools also shared concerns, including that inspectors do not necessarily understand the very challenging context of their school, oversurveillance and inconsistencies between inspections. Ofsted should ensure that their inspectors are trained to address these issues so that schools can be confident that they will be assessed fairly."

Selected policy recommendations

The report makes a series of recommendations for both Ofsted and the Department for Education (DfE):

  • DfE: Consider whether there is adequate support, including financial support, for stuck schools, particularly stuck secondary schools whose per-pupil funding is only marginally higher than other secondary schools. Given that funding is attached to pupil enrolment and stuck schools are undersubscribed, significantly increasing funding could help them become good.
  • DfE: Help stuck schools learn lessons from the experience of unstuck schools through creating networks and disseminating best practice guidance to successfully tackle similar challenging circumstances.
  • DfE: 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.
  • Ofsted: 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.
  • Ofsted: Consider what other positive support can be given to stuck schools to assist in their improvement journey, including linking them with schools that have become unstuck or those that have specific expertise in areas that are core challenges, such as supporting children with EAL and/or refugee backgrounds.
  • Ofsted: Revise the cycles of full section 5 inspections and monitoring section 8 inspections to give time to implement improvements. Avoid: a) transforming monitoring into too frequent inspections and over-surveillance; b) too much variation in the number of inspections and across inspectors; and c) providing false hope in monitoring inspections.
  • Ofsted: Consider what changes in inspection can be implemented 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 such as stuck schools.
  • Munoz-Chereau et al: ‘Stuck’ schools: Can below good Ofsted inspections prevent sustainable improvement? June 2022: https://bit.ly/3zt0S8G

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