The challenges facing 400 ‘stuck’ schools are complex and unique to each, but getting stuck into overcoming them is what all educators should aspire to, writes Julie Slater
Ofsted’s finding that more than 400 schools have not been ‘good’ or better since 2006 represents a national scandal. The inspectorate is absolutely right to shine a light on this issue, and all those working in education have a responsibility to resolve it. How can it be that in our 21st-century society some schools have consecutively failed to provide two whole cohorts of children with the start in life they need if they are to be successful adults?
One reason is because turning around long-term under-performing schools is tough. Very tough. I know from experience the scale of the challenge – I have been involved in every single one of the struggling schools that Outwood Grange Academies Trust has taken on. The issues to overcome range from low aspirations, of both students and their parents; weak finances, caused sometimes by over-staffing; falling rolls; difficulties to recruit and retain teachers; poor behaviour; and well-below-average outcomes. What greets you on day one is depressing. The work is difficult and requires expertise.
But I also know that successfully achieving school transformation provides the richest reward. Outwood Grange is a trust that does this work because we believe in the capacity of education to transform children’s lives, and that transforming schools and communities is the pre-eminent work of educators.
We also do it because we have become very good at it. We know we have a positive impact on students’ futures. There are 32 academies in our trust. We took on 31 of them, and of those, 28 were less than Good when they joined us. Eighteen were in Special Measures. Of the 20 schools that have been inspected by Ofsted since joining OGAT, 19 have been judged Good or Outstanding. Almost all of these schools are in economically deprived areas, many of them former mining communities, and characterised by the very challenges set out by Ofsted in its Fight or Flight report last week.
The reward of school transformation is intergenerational
Our seven-strand transformation model, developed over nearly 20 years, sets out what education leaders need to do when they go into a “stuck school”: Leadership with vision and efficacy; quality in the classroom; curriculum design; monitoring and intervention; systems and policies; targeted professional development; and a culture of praise for staff and students.
But there is something else – the emotional involvement and willingness to take these challenges on. I was the first in my family to go university. Not all of my family supported that. It means I understand that many of the low aspirations we come across when we first work with these schools have to be countered among parents as well as students.
No parent wants their child to go to a school in ‘special measures’. The parent meetings we hold at the start of a sponsorship are always phenomenally well-attended. Working with them is crucial to getting the children to believe too that they are entitled to, and worthy of, high-quality education. You have to change the mindset – to make them realise what good grades mean for their futures and what they are capable of achieving.
This belief leads to pride, great results, parents wanting to send their child to school, and only then a school judged ‘good’ or better. The school becomes a beacon of its community. Its students go on to university, win high-quality apprenticeships and get good jobs. They are able to provide for their family when they decide to have one. And they have high hopes for their children, and support their education.
The reward of school transformation isn’t just for the children in our care today. It is intergenerational. So I would challenge every single one of us working in education to want to become expert in delivering the transformational change these schools need. No one should be looking the other way. There are more than 400 of these schools, waiting to be transformed. Making them a success is a moral imperative.