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'Intractable' schools: can an Ofsted judgement prevent sustainable improvement?

Improving school accountability systems by understanding persistently low Ofsted graded schools.

Student reading a book. Image by Kaboompics.com from Pexels

The project will use mixed methods (secondary data analysis followed by case studies) to explore the characteristics of schools consistently rated by Ofsted as 'Inadequate' and 'Require improvement' (RI), and will highlight examples of good practice to inform policy efforts to drive school improvement.

This two-year project started in September 2019.

Background

Ofsted plays an important role in the assessment and functioning of the English school system. Its detailed scrutiny, judgement of school quality and subsequent monitoring of schools’ improvement plans is assumed to be ‘a force for improvement’.

However, a small number of schools have been consistently classified as less than good for more than a decade.

When launching Ofsted Annual Report 2016/2017 HMCI Amanda Spielman coined the term 'intractable’ schools'. In her words '(…) ‘the intractables’ (…) are the schools (…) that have never been judged good at any point in the last decade. Whole cohorts of children have passed through these schools without ever receiving a good standard of education'.

Although intractable/’stuck’ schools represent a small proportion of all state-funded schools in England, like a germ or an atom, not for being small they are unimportant. Intractable/'stuck' schools are symbolically powerful, as they are ‘the losers’ of the accountability system that judge schools on the basis of their performance. 

Aims

Inform policy making to drive school improvement and improve the school accountability system by exploring:

  • What are the characteristics of ‘intractable’ schools?
  • Why Ofsted judgements haven’t led to improvement of these schools?
  • How is the overall judgement of RI and Inadequate related to judgements of underlying indicators in the current and previous Ofsted frameworks (i.e Leadership and management; Teaching, learning and assessment; Personal development, behaviour and welfare; and Outcomes for pupils)? 
  • What factors have contributed to the ‘intractable’ schools’ pattern of lack of change or decline?
  • How do school staff, parents and governors of ‘intractable’ schools perceive the validity and fairness of Ofsted inspections, and what are their views on how inspections can support change of their schools? 
Methodology

Sequential Explanatory Mixed Methods Design (SEMMD).

Phase 1: Quantitative analysis of secondary data

  • Setting to capture patterns of change in school performance, school workforce, and school context. These patterns will inform our selection of case study schools.

Phase 2: Case studies

  • Multiple-site case study design in 16 schools (five intractable primary schools, five intractable secondary schools, three comparison primary schools and three comparison secondary schools) to explore qualitatively whether and how the classifications of RI and Inadequate have prevented improvement of schools, and how school staff, parents and governors perceive the validity and fairness of their Ofsted inspections.
  • Each case study will involve a series of interviews and focus groups with head teachers, teachers, parents, and governors to explore the factors that seem to have influenced school improvement efforts.
Team

Researchers

Advisory Group

The research benefits from a cross-sectoral Advisory Group (AG) with representatives from the academic, research and policy educational fields.

The AG acts as a ‘critical friend’ and will provide advice throughout the project:

  • Sir Jon Coles, Chief Executive of United Learning
  • Ian Hartwright, Senior Policy Advisor at National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT)
  • Daniel Muijs, Ofsted Head of Research
  • Matthew Purves, Ofsted Deputy Director of Schools
  • Pam Sammons, Professor of Education at the Department of Education, University of Oxford and a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford
  • Louise Stoll, Professor of Professional Learning, IOE - Learning and Leadership, UCL Institute of Education
  • Sally Thomas, Professor of Education, School of Education, University of Bristol