A small number of schools are failing to improve under the current system. For them, a new approach is needed, writes Amanda Spielman

When discussions turn to Ofsted, despite the vast majority of the sector being in favour of our new framework and our overall approach, a common refrain is that inspection is not supportive enough. That inspectors simply turn up, judge and leave.

To some extent, this is true. School improvement has not been part of Ofsted’s remit for many years. Successive governments have made the decision to lower funding and therefore reduce the time for inspection. This has resulted in making it ever more focused on data.

For nine out of ten of schools this isn’t a problem. Schools that are ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ have shown that they are able to improve or maintain a high standard under the current model. There are also ‘requires improvement’ schools that are on an upward trajectory and doing really substantial work on curriculum, behaviour and personal development.

But there are some schools that have struggled for a long time, and been unable to improve to a ‘good’ rating. Sometimes these schools are in difficult situations. They are in culturally and socially isolated communities, whether that’s in small towns, rural or coastal areas. They don’t have the support they need from parents, find managing behaviour difficult and as a result find it hard to recruit and retain teachers, who can be demoralised and demotivated.

I don’t underestimate how hard it is to run a school in this context and there are many heads and leadership teams doing a wonderful job in challenging circumstances. What they need is support from government, not to be put on the merry-go-round of changing headteachers.

We published research this week which looked at the roughly 400 schools that have not been graded ‘good’ or better in 13 years. Around 210,000 children are still being educated in these ‘stuck schools’.

If we can get back into schools soon after inspection, we can remove the stress

Our research into these schools showed that they get ‘stuck’ in different ways. Some, for example, had change fatigue, while others were change resistant.

But other schools, facing similarly difficult circumstances, were able to become ‘unstuck’ and improve. There are common features the leaders of these schools focus on:

  • Implementing an effective behaviour policy;
  • Making sure teaching standards are high, sometimes at a cost to retention levels and
  • Getting the right support from their MAT.

You might think this is obvious, but our report highlights the plethora of initiatives and interventions that struggling schools have experienced over the past 20 years, from school improvement partners to national leaders of education, education action zones to opportunity areas. Schools told us that they received too much advice, thrown at them without enough thought. A cacophony of consultants of variable quality.

For these schools, for whom the current system has not enabled them to improve sufficiently, I want Ofsted to play an additional role. Of course, we will continue to inspect them, but for schools with long-term, entrenched issues we need to spend longer listening to leaders and staff, without the pressure of a judgement or published report, and with a remit to really understand the issues underlying each individual school’s struggles. Crucially, the real substance of education – the curriculum – needs to be at the heart of the conversation early on, rather than being an afterthought.

Schools tell us that when they have benefitted from external advice in the past, it has been tightly tailored to the problems in the school. If we can get back into schools soon after inspection, we can remove the stress and help get staff and children onto a more productive pathway more quickly. It’s quite clear that simply replacing headteachers without a specific plan for improvement just doesn’t work. Sustainable improvement takes more than that, and we are working with the government to ensure we can play our part.