The government want to tackle ‘coasting schools’. Nicky Morgan has described them as schools that may be in “leafy areas” but nevertheless fail to realise the “full potential” of their pupils.

This week the government released the definition they will use to find this sort of school.

Under the proposed law, coasting schools are defined as:

– Until 2018, those that have a low proportion of students getting five GCSEs AND have low progress, then

– After 2018, those that have three years of a low proportion of students making median levels of expected progress


But there’s a problem. As research by Education Datalab has shown, this will disproportionately hit schools with lower ability intakes, which are typically in poorer areas. The government could argue that this is because, somehow, teachers in poorer areas simply have lower expectations than those in richer areas, but it’s a thin argument when presented with these sorts of graphs.

What’s even more odd about the definition is that, for at least the first two years, schools will be measured on pass rates – with protection given to any school where more than 60% of students get five or more GCSEs.

But, why? If coasting schools are those in the “leafy suburbs” with plum intakes then we would entirely expect them to meet this measure and yet still be failing their pupils in terms of progress. THESE are the real coasting schools. Not the ones with poor ability intakes about to be whacked by the new definition.


This tension is what this Labour document from 2008 on coasting schools (yes, really!) set out to resolve.

Click on the image and you can go read the whole thing.


It is weirdly similar to what the Conservatives are trying to do now. Take this section for example:

“Coasting schools are schools whose intake does not fulfil their earlier promise and who could achieve more, where pupils are coming into the school having done well in primary school, then losing momentum and failing to make progress”

That could have come from Nicky Morgan’s latest speech on coasting schools. The classic lines are all there: not fulfiling promise, losing momentum, failing to progress.


It goes on:

“They are not performing badly enough to receive an inadequate judgement from Ofsted, or to risk significant numbers of parents choosing to send their children to another school. Nonetheless they should be achieving better outcomes for their pupils and providing a more exciting and challenging learning experience.”

Besides the bit about ‘exciting’ learning – (I doubt Morgan is bothered about that) – the rest is exactly the same rhetoric we are hearing now about coasting schools.


So where’s the big difference between Labour’s idea and the Conservative one? It’s in the definition.

Labour define coasting schools as those with GCSE scores above a threshold BUT have below average progress. Labour’s plan specifically targets the schools doing well in terms of their GCSE pass rates but whose pupils, having come in with average-to-high ability rates, only come out with Bs or As – rather than A*s.

This compares to the current Conservative definition which specifically protects these sorts of schools by stopping any school above a 60% GCSE pass rate threshold from being considered as ‘coasting’. As datalab’s research shows this helps stop schools in wealthier areas – “the leafy suburbs” – from being hit.



The other difference between Labour’s 2008 idea and the Conservative one now is the ‘package of support’ for coasting schools.

The current offer from Morgan is for ‘national leaders of education’ to help schools in need or, otherwise, make an academy sponsor take over the school’s management.

Labour’s plan is more specific (if slightly management consultant-y):

There is a hint even in this Labour plan that the school leadership might need to change (step 3), but there’s also a focus on teaching (via specialist teachers), a focus on pupils and what will be done to improve their motivation. Elsewhere in the document there are also funding commitments.

What’s most distinctly different to the Conservative situation, though, is the focus on learning not structures. Every improvement strategy clearly refers to an improvement for pupil learning in a way that is completely lost from the current definition of coasting schools. If Morgan wants to sell her plan, she needs to start explaining precisely how NLEs and academisation change the pupil experience; precisely how teaching is going to improve. If she can’t do that, the plan will struggle to convince.


Okay, so the Conservative definition isn’t wonderful for a few years – but isn’t this issue resolved in 2018 when coastings are defined only by a progress measure?

For a while I thought this might be true, but poking around in the evidence it appears that it’s not. The fact is, schools with high-ability intakes appear to progress more quickly than those without. So, while a progress measure is better than a threshold measure, (because it takes into account the fact that children arrive at secondary school with different starting points), it doesn’t take into account the difference in progress rates.

I can see why the government doesn’t want to deal with this uncomfortable fact. One of the only ways to do so would be to write into the law a sort of ‘handicap’ progress rate for poorer kids than richer ones, or kids attending a selective versus non-selective schools – a bit like contextual value added measures used to do. But that’s politically impossible. You can’t write into a law that a poor kid is expected to do less well than a rich one. It’s howl-provoking, defeatist and, actually, quite patronising. But the problem is that if you don’t include it (which the government haven’t), then any progress measure inevitably ends up whacking schools with poorer intakes far more than it whacks those in “leafy suburbs” and hence the entire point of the policy is lost.

This is a bind. And it’s not one I have any solution for. But it seems to me that if you truly want to find the real coasting schools then you wouldn’t begin with a definition, as is currently proposed until 2018, which protects those schools above a certain GCSE threshold. Instead, you would go after schools that have high GCSE pass rates and very low progress rates, just like the Labour plan suggested in 2008.