Stories + Views
Policy Exchange report which advocates for-profit educational provision (Part Two) tackles “coasting” schools
There’s been great concern about “the quality of education on offer in the average English state school,” writes James O’Shaughnessy, author of Competition meets Collaboration. But what are “average English state schools”? O’Shaughnessy implies they’re ones judged “satisfactory”. But Ofsted found 70% of English state schools were “good or better” at their last inspection. It would be more accurate to say that the average English state school is good or better.
That’s not to say there aren’t schools causing concern. According to O’Shaughnessy, these are “coasting” schools which, he says, have “stubbornly” resisted efforts to improve their results since 1982. It’s unclear what evidence O’Shaughnessy uses to support this statement – Ofsted has only been in existence since 1992 and it wasn’t until 2006 that the 4-point scale (1 = Outstanding, 4 = inadequate) was introduced.
O’Shaughnessy says that “satisfactory” schools will have four years “to sort themselves out before being put into special measures”. But it can’t be assumed that schools previously judged “satisfactory” are still “satisfactory” – they may have improved just as those judged “outstanding” may have been downgraded. And it has to be said that there are increasing concerns about the accuracy of recent Ofsted inspections.
Nevertheless, O’Shaughnessy puts concerns about Ofsted’s judgements aside. Ofsted, he writes, estimates that there “could be up to 30% of schools” below par. He supports this by citing one interviewee who “thought” half of English schools were underperforming.
The report describes policies designed to help poorer pupils. He cites the National Challenge but doesn’t point out that City Challenge which formed the basis for National Challenge was more successful than sponsored academies in raising results. He mentions City Technology Colleges (CTCs) which were supposed to be representative of the full range of ability in their catchment. But only three of the fifteen original CTCs had more than 10% low attainers in their 2011 GCSE cohort. The Thomas Telford School, a CTC in Shropshire described as one of the top-performing comprehensives in the country, had 67% high attaining pupils in the 2011 GCSE cohort and only 1% low attainers. This intake is more like that of a grammar school.
O’Shaughnessy cites a 2010 poll which found that 25% of parents thought their child’s education was “satisfactory or worse”. But the poll didn’t define what was meant by “satisfactory” and it’s likely that parents would take “satisfactory” to mean “satisfying the criteria” not “unsatisfactory.” Parents were asked to rate the standard of education available to their children. The results were as follows:
Very good 40%
Fairly good 35%
Fairly poor 6%
Very poor 1%.
It’s likely that the report was written before the UK Statistics watchdog expressed concerns about citing the 2000 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests for the UK, so it’s to his credit that O’Shaughnessy concedes that these results are disputed by citing FullFact. Unfortunately, he spoilt this by saying “it is still indisputably the case that according to the 2009 PISA evaluation England is at best a middling performer in English and Maths and just above average in Science.” PISA tested Reading – not English; England was “statistically significantly above” the average in Science and the Maths result was contradicted by the earlier Trends in Maths and Science Survey (TIMMS). The head of the Statistics watchdog drew attention to TIMMS and concluded that ‘it may be difficult to treat an apparent decline in secondary school pupils’ performance as “a statistically robust result”’.
O’Shaughnessy quoted from the LSE report by Machin and Vernoit but he missed the significance in the quote he gave which said that sponsored academies had improved the quality of their intake since becoming academies. This, of course, would have affected outcomes. He also ignored the warning given by Machin that evidence from sponsored academies couldn’t be used to justify the academy conversion programme.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools, is quoted as saying that heads of successful schools are supporting other schools in clusters. But clusters don’t have to be confined to academies – they can take place within local authorities. In January, TES found that 97% of converter academies were not helping weaker schools, and it appears that Ofsted is becoming increasingly concerned that when heads of successful schools leave their own schools to concentrate on others then their own school suffers.
Becoming an academy doesn’t always work, O’Shaughnessy concedes. He lists academies that failed to meet the Government’s benchmark of 35% of eligible pupils securing 5+ A*-C GCSEs (or equivalent) including Maths and English. This number of “failing” academies is much larger when equivalent exams (1) are removed. Skegness Academy, Lincolnshire, for example, would fall from 45% achieving the benchmark in 2011 to 1%, while at Steiner Academy, Hereford, the results plummet from 75% reaching the benchmark to 0%.
O’Shaughnessy suggests one answer: a negotiated solution transferring the underperforming academy to another chain. He gives as an example the Emmanuel Schools Foundation Academies which joined ULT. He doesn’t, however, say that ULT was once banned from taking on more academies because of poor performance. And his implied smooth transition is contradicted by John Burn OBE, ex-principal of one of the Emmanuel academies, who told the Education Select Committee that “The negotiations by both parties were conducted in secret. An announcement was made as a fait accompli that control of the schools [Emmanuel Academies] had passed to another charity [ULT]. Everything was done behind closed doors without the knowledge of the school Principals, the governors, the parents or the local communities which these schools serve. There was no consultation either with the staff or with parents.”
Not very democratic, it would seem. But then O’Shaughnessy isn’t a fan of the involvement of democratically-elected politicians serving on school governing body – he describes it as interference.
(1) Data for the results of sponsored academies in 2011 when equivalent exams are stripped out is available here. Download document DEP2012-0657.