Ofsted warns new ‘coasting schools’ powers could fuel ‘quick fixes’

DfE will plough on with ordering more schools to academise or join new trusts, despite fears reforms will hit recruitment and discourage trusts from taking on schools

DfE will plough on with ordering more schools to academise or join new trusts, despite fears reforms will hit recruitment and discourage trusts from taking on schools

30 Jun 2022, 12:41

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The government will plough ahead with new intervention powers over ‘coasting’ schools despite Ofsted warning they are “unnecessary and potentially damaging” for improving schools and risk encouraging “quick fixes”.

The Department for Education has today confirmed plans to intervene at schools rated ‘requires improvement’ or below in successive Ofsted inspections.

In a formal consultation response, the department said it expects regional directors would “normally” order such maintained schools and standalone academies to join multi-academy trusts.

Schools will receive letters informing them they are “eligible” for intervention this autumn, new guidance states.

The government emphasised decisions will still be “case-by-case”,  but said it is “not right that some pupils have spent their entire education in schools that are less than good”.

But the consultation response reveals significant worries in the sector, with unions arguing it could hit headteacher recruitment and trusts warning it risks disincentivising them from taking on struggling schools.

Ofsted says some double-RI intervention ‘unnecessary’

Even the government’s own inspectorate, whose verdicts underpin the DfE’s case for intervention, voiced “concern” about the measures.

It said a second ‘requires improvement’ judgment can reflect continuing or worsening issues, but other schools “may be improving and under strong leadership”.

Intervention is “unnecessary and possibly damaging in those circumstances”. Ofsted is also concerned schools with one ‘requires improvement’ judgment “may implement short term fixes to avoid a second RI rather than focusing on sustainable improvement”.

Legislation will bring 900 schools in scope, but the DfE will only “initially” contact around 300 schools inspected since May 2021 – with the exception of those with five consecutive RI judgments.

But Ofsted warned even five such poor ratings may not reflect “failure” by the school’s current trust, as they may have only run the school during one inspection.

Backlash against ‘presumption’ of intervention

Other sector voices also sounded the alarm. More respondents opposed making academisation or rebrokering the default option than backed it, “especially where schools can show recent improvement”.

The report stated: “A great number of respondents do not think a school with two Ofsted judgements of less than Good but that is on an upward trajectory and making improvements should be in scope.”

Even most supportive responses to overall plans were qualified, with many including the Confederation of School Trusts stressing decisions must be case-by-case.

Some respondents said double-RI was “not the correct measure” as certain schools need more time for turnaround than others. One unnamed union noted the “very wide range of performance” captured by an RI verdict.

There was also greater opposition than support for including schools’ inspection history before they joined their current trusts.

The report said CST warned it could “act as a disincentive to taking on RI or inadequate schools”, and trusts “should not be held accountable for outcomes prior to it taking over”.

Officials say decisions are “discretionary” and will consider representations.

Warning over head recruitment impact and trust shortage

But some respondents voiced fears of a “negative impact” on teacher – particularly headteacher – recruitment and retention, “as well as the impact of the policy on wellbeing”.

Meanwhile several respondents noted the “scarcity of alternative trusts” in some areas, or said MATs were “not universally strong”.

Even supporters said the department “must work to ensure there is sufficient capacity in the MAT system before issuing academy orders”.

Current difficulties finding the right MAT in 55 new “education investment areas” (EIA) were among the reasons cited by the 36 per cent of respondents who opposed plans to “initially concentrate” focus on such areas. Only 27 per cent supported this focus.

Other reasons included “a concern that pupils in schools not in EIAs would be unfairly left behind”, but the DfE said regional directors “will consider” swift action still elsewhere.

There was more support than opposition over applying reforms to special and alternative provision, though some highlighted the greater challenges they can face.

The Catholic Education Service warned of “difficulties” finding trusts with “both the religious character and the relevant expertise”.

An analysis by Education Datalab found two-thirds of ‘coasting’ schools are already academies. The study found 869 schools potentially eligible for intervention. Of these, 65 per cent (564) are academies.

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