Unsticking low-rated schools
20th January 2020 by Timo Hannay [link]
Earlier this month, Ofsted published an interesting analysis of 'stuck' schools – ie, ones that have received low ratings ('Requires Improvement' or 'Inadequate') for at least four consecutive inspections. They also look at schools that were previously stuck but have since improved (ie, deemed at least 'Good' in their last two inspections) and asked what those schools have done that the perennially stuck ones have not.
Ofsted's report speaks for itself and looks very sound, so we won't try to unpick it here. But it takes a largely school-level view, so we'll look here instead at some of the systemic reasons why schools appear get stuck in the first place. In our view, the surprise is not that some schools remain stuck for many years on end, but rather that any of them are able to overcome the considerable headwinds that disproportionately affect schools with low Ofsted ratings. With all due humility (we're data analysts, not policy experts), we also have some suggestions for the kinds of system-level changes that might give such schools a collective leg-up.
Update added 20/1/20: Here's Teacher Toolkit's take: The Unintended Consequences of Labelling 'Stuck Schools'.
One trend that the Ofsted report describes is the perception among low-rated schools that they are 'dumping grounds'1 for pupils who other schools would rather not admit. The data suggest that they have a point. Figure 1, shows a range of different metrics for primary schools (red columns) and secondary schools (blue columns) in England, grouped by Ofsted rating2. To start with, let's look at occupancy (the number of pupils as a percentage of total school capacity). 'Outstanding' schools have mean values of just over 100% (ie, their pupil numbers are, on average, slightly higher than their official capacity), while 'Inadequate' primary schools have a mean occupancy rate of 88% and secondary schools just 71%. We can also see that low-rated schools take far greater proportions of poorer pupils and smaller proportions of those with high prior attainment, whether at primary school or secondary school. Of course, it's widely recognised that good schools push up nearby house prices, so you'd expect their pupils to be more affluent – which tends to correlate with higher prior attainment. But not so fast: even if we compare schools with their local pupil populations (ie, the sum of all pupils at nearby schools), lower-rated schools still have more than their fair share of poorer kids3.
(Use the menu to select a metric to view; hover over the columns to see corresponding mean values and sample sizes.)
Figure 1: Metrics for mainstream state schools in England, by Ofsted rating
Not only do low-rated schools seem to have more challenging pupils, in certain important ways they also appear to have reduced means to educate them. Once again, Ofsted's report explores these 'workforce' issues and we see some of them in the data too. For example, low-rated schools have higher proportions of teaching positions that are vacant or temporarily filled4. Consistent with this, they spend much more money on supply teachers (either directly or through agencies). 'RI' schools – though not the small number of 'Inadequate' ones – also tend to have slightly lower proportions of teachers over 50 (which we interpret as a proxy for staff experience). As we've described before, they also have much higher rates of teacher sickness leave.
Given these disadvantages, it's hardly surprising that schools with low Ofsted ratings find it difficult to improve. What, if anything, can be done at a systemic level? We suggest two things to think about:
- Schools can't control the areas in which they find themselves, but they can try to make their own intakes representative of the local population – academically, socioeconomically and ethnically. In some cases there might be good reasons for a school to be out of balance with its local community – grammar schools and certain types of faith school are arguably designed to segregate pupils – but leaders and inspectors (as well parents and politicians) should at least be asking themselves why, and whether anything can be done about it. Indeed, how about making this an explicit criterion on which Ofsted judges school effectiveness?
- Second, it seems clear that low-rated schools struggle even more than most to hire, motivate and retain staff. A contributing factor is surely the lack of established ways for teachers to earn lasting recognition for contributing to underperforming schools rather than joining ones that are already doing well. This is something that can really only be tackled at the national level: the Department for Education should provide incentives for the most able and experienced teachers to take some risks and go to the schools where need for them is greatest.
Agree? Disagree? We welcome your thoughts: [email protected]
(Users of SchoolDash Insights can see further relevant analyses in the 'Pupils', 'Staff' and 'Recruitment' and 'Finances' sections, among others. Data on pupil composition relative to the local area are also provided on our individual school profile pages.)
1st January 2020 by Timo Hannay [link]
As the new decade begins, the ever-excellent Ross McGill at Teacher Toolkit has shared his wishlist for 2020. To inform the debate, we thought we would share some relevant data, mostly from our recently launched dashboard service, SchoolDash Insights.
Update added 1/1/20: Here is Ross's related blog post on '5 Teaching Ideas to Bin in 2020'.
In sickness and in health
Among many other things, Teacher Toolkit's wishlist refers to teacher motivation and mental health. Worryingly little information seems to be collected on these topics, but the Department for Education (DfE) does publish data on teacher sickness leave as part of its annual School Workforce Census and this might be considered an indicator of general teacher wellbeing.
One of the most striking patterns is the regional disparity in days lost to sickness, as shown in Map 1. Among both primary schools and secondary schools, London and south-eastern England show lower average levels of sickness than the midlands and the north. The data shown are for 2019, but similar trends are evident in other years.
Hover over the map to see corresponding data; use the menu to switch between primary and secondary schools. (SchoolDash Insights users can use the 'Staff' section to explore this and other indicators across a range of years, as well as benchmarking individual schools.)
Map 1: Average days per teacher lost to sickness (2019)
Based on their recent survey, Teacher Toolkit also reports that "[s]chool inspection appears to be driving teacher workload, rather than school leadership". Related to this, another clear trend in the teacher sickness data concerns Ofsted rating. As shown in Figure 1, higher Ofsted ratings correlate with lower levels of teacher sickness leave among both primary and secondary schools.
Figure 1: Average days per teacher lost to sickness (2019)
Ross also refers to schools working with disadvantaged pupils, and we can see a clear trend in teacher sickness by school deprivation level too.
It's worth adding that secondary schools with larger proportions of poor pupils tend to show greater recruiting activity, suggesting that they have more teacher vacancies and/or experience greater difficulty in filling them – see our recent analysis of school recruiting, especially Figure 5.
Age and experience
Another important subject broached in Teacher Toolkit's wishlist is the value of teaching experience. The DfE doesn't publish data on the lengths of teachers' tenure, but the School Workforce Census includes information on the proportions of teacher aged over 50, which we can use as a proxy for teaching experience. As shown in Figure 2, this has been in steady decline among both primary and secondary schools.
Figure 2: Average proportions of teachers aged over 50
(Note that recent changes in the DfE's approach to suppression of data corresponding to small numbers of teachers means that information for primary schools in 2018 and 2019 are not directly comparable with earlier years, so these are shown as separate data sets.)
Once again, we see considerable regional variation in this indicator too, as shown in Map 2. Among primary schools, the south-east of England outside London shows the highest proportions of older teachers, while for secondary schools the north-south divide is even more stark.
Map 2: Average proportion of teachers aged over 50 (2019)
(Once again, SchoolDash Insights users can use the 'Staff' section to explore this and other indicators across a range of years, as well as benchmarking individual schools.)
Happy New Year?
These may seem like rather depressing statistics with which to usher in a new year – indeed a new decade. Yet recognising a problem is the first step to solving it, so let that be our resolution. Happy New Year!