UCL: Underperforming schools need more support to avoid downward spiral

The report “‘Stuck’ schools: Can below good Ofsted inspections prevent sustainable improvement?” explores the underperformance of 580 schools in England that consistently received less than “good” Ofsted inspection grades between 2005 to 2018. It found that schools that receive a series of below “good” Ofsted grades, so either “requires improvement” or “inadequate”, often end up in a cycle of challenging circumstances – including higher teacher turnover, higher levels of disadvantaged pupils and pupils with special educational needs – with limited improvement.

However, the report also found that schools of this kind are not unique, and while many other schools share most of these challenges, a continuous cycle of less than “good” inspection judgements is possible to avoid.

To establish the findings, the researchers identified and analysed the data behind 580 ‘stuck’ schools, compared with schools that were not ‘stuck’. This was combined with stakeholders’ experiences and focus groups with 16 case study schools.

The team found that after the initial negative Ofsted grade, the intake of a school tends to become more disadvantaged, with an increase in teacher turnover – both of which contribute to the difficulty in reversing the negative Ofsted judgement. The longer the school continues to have the less than “good” rating, the harder the process of school improvement becomes.

Yet, the research also reveals that a “requires improvement” or “inadequate” “poor” inspection judgement is only a modest contributing factor of the lack of improvement or decline of ‘stuck’ schools over time, with the presence of “good” or “outstanding” neighbourhood schools more important in predicting whether a school will become ‘stuck’ than the performance of the ‘stuck’ school.

The report reveals 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’ in subsequent Ofsted inspections. However, there were no similar, positive effects for ‘stuck’ primary schools that joined a multi academy trust.

The researchers highlight that the findings show academisation is not a silver bullet to deliver school improvement – and urge the government to consider these results to help inform its future policies around academisation and school improvement.

Lead researcher Dr Munoz-Chereau (UCL IOE) said: “How to solve the stubborn underperformance of around 580 ‘stuck’ schools in England is high on the government’s agenda.

“Our mixed-methods study is robust and expands Ofsted work by combining quantitative and qualitative methods to better understand patterns of change over time and stakeholders’ experiences in ‘stuck’ schools and their comparison group.

“Its results are timely as they show that inspections can have a detrimental effect, but also that ‘stuck’ schools can get ‘un-stuck’ given the right time and support.”

Researcher Jo Hutchinson (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.”

Ofsted grades schools on a four-point scale: Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement and Inadequate.