Jayne Dowle: The bigger picture behind ‘coasting’ schools rhetoric

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A SCHOOL gets a good reputation. Perhaps it is rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted. Parents fight tooth and nail to get their children into this school, maybe even moving house to improve their chances. Then, within the space of a few years, the school goes rapidly downhill. Before you know it, standards have slipped, pupils are leaving and it ends up with falling results, teetering on the verge of special measures.

That’s the price too many schools pay for “coasting”, as Education Secretary Nicky Morgan calls it. Schools falling below official targets, including some rated as “good” by Ofsted, will be given a serious kick up the posterior. Those not up to scratch will be given help to improve, but those which fail to make satisfactory progress could be turned into academies.

There are several flaws to this plan, which I will come on to later. However, you can’t argue that the basic principle makes sense. “I’m unapologetic about shining a spotlight on complacency,” says Ms Morgan. “For too long a group of coasting schools, many in leafy areas with more advantages than schools in disadvantaged communities, have fallen beneath the radar.”

And she’s right. I’ve seen it happen to both primary and secondary schools round here. I’ve seen the smug good news stories about the schools in the “nicer” parts of town basking in their “outstanding” ranking, then watched with more than a little bewilderment as their reputation slips... and slips. What happens to these schools? What hope for education in general if even the “better” schools can’t keep their standards going? It’s enough to send a parent re-mortgaging the house and running for the private sector.

Let’s not panic though. This is no time for knee-jerk reactions. We have to look at the bigger picture. For a start, the fact that schools end up coasting suggests some inherent difficulties with the inspection process itself. Everyone knows that schools pull out all the stops when Ofsted announces it is coming to town. Is it the case that certain schools (and teachers) know how to tick the boxes to please the inspectors, but know rather less about pushing those high standards to keep going over months and years? Good standards in schools should be consistent, not just brought out to please the men (and the women) with the clipboards. Sorry to say this but perhaps yet another revamp of the inspection process would help.

Let’s also not forget the key players – the teachers. Everyone knows that good teaching staff make a school. What happens though is that ambitious teachers find a safe berth at a school with a good reputation, do two or three years – think of the CV – then armed with the experience, go off and find a bigger and better job elsewhere. The lure of academies, with their tempting pay-scales unshackled to local authority-set rates, should not be discounted as a factor here. However, if such turnover happens over time and in number, the school itself will become a different institution.

And despite all those highly-qualified teaching graduates leaving our universities this summer, there are simply not enough to fill the gaps left behind. In fact, our schools are facing an unprecedented recruitment crisis. More than half (52 per cent) of Yorkshire secondary headteachers who took part in a recent survey by the Association of School and College Leaders said that they have vacancies in the core subjects of English, maths and science.

Growing class sizes are an obvious challenge, but you might be surprised at the other reasons why teachers apparently don’t want the many jobs on offer. The high cost of rural housing, for example, can put young graduates off taking up a post in a country school. I know from both of my own children – one at a state primary, one at a secondary academy – that temporary teachers are never a long-term solution. How can a school, and its pupils, make progress and avoid coasting if there aren’t teachers there to teach?

Finally, let’s not assume that turning a school into an academy is a one-size fits-all solution. Whatever you do to a school, it’s still in the same geographical place and with the same cohort of pupils.

That’s why I say we must look at the bigger picture. Critics of Ms Morgan’s plan say that the criteria for judging coasting schools is “muddled” and “unfair”. In my humble opinion as a parent, it sounds like there will be far too much emphasis placed on public exam results and levels reached in primary school tests, and not nearly enough emphasis put on the way a school works and helps every pupil to learn. Education is in a mess because years and years of misguided political interventions have made it that way. Teachers are angered, pupils are confused and parents are frustrated and yes, bewildered.

Let Ms Morgan go ahead with her big idea, but she must remember that coasting schools are not the only reason why our education system has gone seriously off the rails.