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5 things bothering me about the ‘coasting schools’ definition

Today was the first day of the Education Bill committee stage. To celebrate the ‘coasting schools’ definition was revealed.

The definition matters because it will decide which schools could be forced to change management unless the regional schools commissioner decides they are worthy of being saved.

A detailed look at the definition is here. In essence schools will be judged on a combination of attainment AND progress measures. You would need to fail on BOTH – that is, have a very low proportion of pupils attaining certain grades AND have low levels of progress.

The measure is not as bad as some people are making out. In fact, there are some sensible parts. Jonathan Simons, over at think-tank Policy Exchange, has neatly pointed these out.

But there ARE some issues. Having spent the day listening to what teachers and school leaders said about the proposal, as well as looking at data, watching the committee debate, and having a good think, here’s what I think the main issues are.


1. The proposed coasting definition gives extra (and unnecessary) protection to schools with wealthy intakes


Coasting schools will eventually be defined purely by progress measures. This is supposed to mean that even if a school is full of shiny clever rich kids the school will still be caught out if not pushing pupils hard enough. Nicky Morgan has specifically pushed this line in her speeches.


But the measure as defined today won’t do that. Wealthy kids don’t just achieve more than poorer kids, they also progress quicker. True, some schools buck the trend and with a poor intake have astounding progress. But that’s beside the point of what the ‘coasting’ school bill is supposed to focus on. It’s not supposed to yell at schools with poor intakes and say ‘come on why aren’t you doing better’ (as they get a lot of that already).  What it is supposed to do is equally beat up on poor and rich schools. But to do that you would (a) need the metric to be harsher on schools with richer intakes (which it isn’t), and (b)need it not to build in a high attainment get-out clause (which it does).


As it stands the definition doesn’t really beat poorer schools any harder than they’re already being beaten. But it certainly isn’t whacking the schools with plum intakes either.


2. It won’t begin until at least January 2017, and it will only affect a very small number of schools


The time delay is sort of fine, though it does mean school leaders have a sword dangling above their head for 18 months which is unsettling at best.


In terms of numbers, the rather brilliant Education Datalab have put together the figures and reckon about 1,200 schools in total would be effected: 13 per cent of secondaries, five per cent of primaries. Given that many of those schools are probably already inadequate and already changing to being an academy, or ARE an academy, or are amid a school improvement process, the final number of schools that will receive help through the bill is pretty low.


On the one hand this is good. There’s not enough resource to help more people. (See point 4). But it also makes the fuss and hours spent on this policy a bit pointless.


3. Regional Schools Commissioners decide if a coasting school’s improvement plan is credible enough to save it from forced academy conversion. Regional Schools Commissioners are evaluated on the number of schools they turn into academies. HMMMM.


The public know that regional schools commissioners are evaluated in their job on the basis of how many schools they convert. They know this because we revealed it last year after a freedom of information request. But it raises a serious conflict of interest.


Asked about it today in the committee session, regional schools commissioner Tim Coulson  admitted that performance indicators do change behaviour. (As the whole point of the coasting bill is to change school behaviour via indicators, he didn’t really have a choice). If true, why should we expect regional schools commissioners not to force a school to academise whenever they can?


4. Regional Schools Commissioners only have a maximum seven members of staff – and a rapidly growing workload


If 1,200 is the eventual number of coasting schools – this will need to be handled by 8 commissioners who have a maximum of 7 staff members each to help them. Some only have 6. (Numbers are from a recent DfE workforce report. This is why we read everything).  Looking after an extra 1,200 schools, in addition to all current academies, and free schools, and failing sponsors is a workload mountain. No wonder the DfE recently advertised for an RSC graduate intern.

5. The debasement of Ofsted


If the quality of schools is now judged by data, and schools are forcibly closed or taken over by RSCs on the back of it: what is the point of Ofsted?  As best I can figure it, they become a cross-between a vetted prospectus service and a policing unit.


Some people will think the demise of Ofsted to be a marvellous thing. Confidence in inspectors was low and grading unreliable. But those people must now reap the complaints they have sown. Instead of classroom visits determining the future of schools it will be raw data and a cobbled together school improvement plan guiding decisions about school management takeovers. I suspect many people who hoped for the end of Ofsted were not hoping for such blunt instruments to replace them.


There are 5 more planned sessions of the Education Bill committee. We shall have to wait and see if any of these issues is resolved.


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One comment

  1. Rob Thompson

    I think that the quality of schools is already judged by data, although you might argue that the immense variation of inspection outcomes across a range of achievement data proves otherwise. Either way Ofsted, or moreover its drivers, created the conditions whereby only 4 words were ever important: English, maths, good or outstanding. Anything else was peripheral in many respects and schools were pre-judged based on En/ma data. I’d like to think that the fear culture is changing but in my kids school the HT has just pre-warned 3 core subject heads that they will be under competency unless the school moves away from ‘being a 3 across the board’. This smacks of poor leadership at the top to me so who’s coasting there? I despair…or do I when I also see schools taking charge of their own agenda and language by which they assess success. Coasting, failing, ‘sink’, underachieving…whatever..I agree that we should strive to provide the very best education for ALL, but will we escape from the trap that success is only a correlation of attainment or progress in English and maths?