A few thoughts on recognising social factors in our oversight of schools

David Laws claimed last week that Ofsted favours schools in ‘leafy catchments’.  It should come as no surprise that schools in affluent areas tend to get better results – the stubborn link between family income and student outcomes is well known.  Students’ starting points are higher, and parents in affluent areas tend to be better educated themselves.  Furthermore, these areas experience less of the social problems that can blight more deprived neighbourhoods.   Children growing up in affluent neighbourhoods are more likely to see success as the norm, and will expect to progress to university and enter a profession.  Most of us are carried along by the tide of expectations which surround us, for better or worse.

So it stands to reason that schools in leafy catchments tend to do better on the Ofsted framework.   The danger arises if we attribute this success to the actions of the school.  In the book that I recently wrote with Dame Sally Coates and Michael Ribton (Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership), we argue that it’s much more difficult to create a great school in a challenging environment.  Take this paragraph:

[Schools in low income areas] must proactively instil change.  We must alter the direction of travel for our young people and it’s this intervention which is so difficult, so energy sapping, and so complex.  The problem of public education has been that schools have reflected their neighbourhoods, which is fine in affluent areas.  So the challenge for a headteacher of a middle class, suburban school is to manage a stable learning environment, safe in the knowledge that the students in his care will most likely end up fine whatever the school does.  Headteachers can therefore take a laissez faire approach, maintaining a steady ship and allowing their teachers to get on and teach.  It’s a fundamentally different proposition to the role of a head in a challenging urban school, where proactive intervention is required to change the direction of our charges.  Unless we create a rich, loving, positive culture; the values of the street will take hold.  Unless we provide challenging, engaging, pacey lessons; student progress will continue to fall short of national norms.  Unless we offer personalised intervention based on rigorously tracking student progress; pupils will fail to meet their potential.  Unless we impose impeccable expectations of behaviour, and immediately sanction non-compliance; disaffection and subversion will take root.”

So how can we account for social factors while maintaining high expectations of schools?

The most obvious solution to this problem is for our accountability framework (league tables and Ofsted) to account for social factors when judging schools.  The problem with this, of course, is that it imposes low expectations on schools in challenging circumstances.  Instead, we should explore ways of recognising the additional challenges faced by schools in low-income areas, while maintaining high expectations of all our young people.

Possible solutions:

  • Ofsted could deny the ‘outstanding’ rating to schools whose own social composition is significantly more affluent than that of its neighbourhood.
  • Ofsted should be more willing to award a higher grade to Quality of Teaching and Leadership & Management than Outcomes in areas of high deprivation. This would recognise the additional challenge of securing excellent outcomes from less affluent students*.
  • Ofsted could pay more attention to a school’s direction of travel, recognising that it takes time to turn around a school in challenging circumstances. See this article by Geoff Barton on the failure of Ofsted to recognise the fragility of some schools or take a school’s trajectory into account when reaching its judgement.
  • Progress 8: This should be welcomed because it provides progress data alongside attainment data, striking the balance mentioned above between high expectations for all, and recognition that it’s tougher for schools with less affluent students.

Affluent areas make fertile ground for successful schools.  Our oversight of schools needs to account for this and give more credit to teachers and school leaders who secure strong outcomes against the odds.

*Point 2 might benefit from elaboration.  We know that the Achievement grade often determines the grade given to Quality of Teaching and Leadership & Management, yet if we accept that schools in low income areas face a more difficult challenge than more affluent schools, then it makes sense that leadership and teaching could be better than raw student outcomes might indicate.   Similarly, a school in a ‘leafy catchment’ might be given a lower grade for Quality of Teaching and Leadership & Management, even if outcomes are strong.