IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


‘Stuck’ schools: the detrimental consequences of failing Ofsted inspections

Why do some schools continuously fail to improve after Ofsted inspections, and what will unstick them from their under-performance predicament?

Teacher stands in front of students in a bright modern primary classroom. Ashok Sinha via Adobe Stock

29 June 2023

Ofsted plays a crucial role in the assessment and functioning of the English school system, inspecting schools and giving an overall outstanding, good, requires improvement, or inadequate label on the basis of their performance. This judgement of school quality and subsequent monitoring of schools’ improvement plans are intended to be ‘a force for improvement’ in a national system of accountability. 

‘Stuck’ schools, which have been consistently classified as less than ‘good’ for more than a decade, represent approximately 2-3% of all state-funded schools in England. While this represents a small proportion of schools, a ‘requires improvement’ or 'inadequate’ rating carries significant stigma which the affected school finds difficult to overcome. They also act as a cautionary tale by demonstrating the consequences of failing an inspection such as losing funding or being forced into academisation. 

The Centre for Educational Leadership at IOE has conducted research to find out what causes these schools to be deemed less than ‘Good’ for extended periods with little significant improvement, and what will unstick them from their under-performance predicament.

Characteristics of stuck schools 

‘Stuck’ schools typically face an unusually challenging combination of circumstances, which frequently included factors contributing to overall instability, such as high teacher turnover, student mobility, and frequent changes in school management. 

Some factors that affect inspection outcomes are out of the school’s control, including: 

  • Higher proportions of disadvantaged students, characterised by higher rates of Special Educational Needs and low-level disabilities, and higher levels of local socio-economic deprivation. 
  • Problematic geographical locations, including the presence of good or outstanding neighbouring schools which was found to be more important in predicting whether a school will fail an inspection, than the performance of the failing school itself. 

Underperformance leads to over-surveillance 

Critically, while other well-performing schools can also share the same challenging circumstances as ‘stuck’ schools, the research highlighted that failing an inspection itself brings detrimental effects that contribute to a downward performance spiral over time.  

The study found that inspection frequency could increase from three to sixteen Section 5 full inspections and Section 8 monitoring inspections, with some schools receiving up to four consecutive monitoring inspections in the space of two years. This did not give time to implement changes and made it more difficult to demonstrate improvement. 

Many stakeholders valued the role of Ofsted and other support received to improve, but also raised concerns about the validity, reliability, and fairness of inspections. 

Performance narratives 

The school’s own characterisation of their performance made a difference in whether they felt ‘stuck’ (when performance was in decline), compared to those who perceived themselves as making progress (when their performance trajectory was stable or mixed). Most schools contested the characterisation of being ‘stuck’ and held an alternative narrative which focused on improvements on aspects such as overall grades, or improvements in the grades obtained in the sub-dimensions of the inspection framework.

How do schools un-stick from their poor performance rating 

‘Stuck’ schools can get ‘un-stuck’ given the right time and support. The study’s sample of schools which achieved it took 9 years to receive a ‘good’ grade, which varied between three inspections over 6 years, to twelve inspections over 13 years. 

The researchers make the following recommendations to help schools avoid the detrimental effect that a series of below good Ofsted grades can have on improvement, especially for those working in challenging circumstances.

Recommendations for the DfE
  • Consider whether there is adequate financial support for ‘stuck’ schools, particularly ‘stuck’ secondary schools whose per-pupil funding is only marginally higher than other secondary schools. Given that funding is attached to pupil enrolment and ‘stuck’ schools are under-subscribed, significantly increasing funding could help them become good.
  • Help ‘stuck’ schools learn lessons from the experience of ‘un-stuck’ schools through creating networks and disseminating best practice guidance to successfully tackle similarly challenging circumstances.
  • Help to stabilise ‘stuck’ schools’ staff. Reducing excessively high teacher turnover, including loss of key staff and governance changes needs to happen before the school can improve.
  • Review the positive and negative impact of academisation on ‘stuck’ schools to gain insights from different experiences, particularly in differences between primary compared to secondary schools. 
Recommendations for Ofsted
  • Ensure that inspectors are properly trained to understand the significance and implications of schools working in very challenging circumstances.
  • Revise the cycles of full section 5 inspections and monitoring section 8 inspections in order to give time to implement improvements. Avoid:
    • transforming monitoring into too frequent inspections and over-surveillance; 
    • too much variation in the number of inspections and across inspectors; and 
    • providing false hope in monitoring inspections. 
  • Consider changes in the inspection model - for example removing overall grades - to avoid the stigma that negative inspection ratings can create, particularly within disadvantaged communities.
  • Consider what other support can be given to assist schools’ improvement journey, including linking them with schools that have become ‘un-stuck’ or those that have specific expertise in areas that are core challenges, such as supporting children who use English as an additional language, and/or refugee backgrounds. 

Policy and practice implications

Dr Bernardita Munoz-Chereau and Jo Hutchinson presented the report's main findings, which was followed by a discussion of the policy and practice implications between Ofsted, headteachers and improvement practitioners at an event held on 7 June 2022.

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Both nationally and internationally, the study has helped headteachers, teachers, governors, parents and students located in disadvantaged communities to reduce stigma, by highlighting factors out of the school’s control that affect inspection outcomes. 

The study has also illuminated discussions around the unintended effects of Ofsted inspections. 

Nationally, the study has been a key input of the National Education Union inquiry ‘Beyond Ofsted’, where Professor Munoz-Chereau (PI) is an advisor.

Update: In October 2023 Professor Munoz-Chereau and Dr Sam Sims were present as witnesses for the Select Education Committee inquiry into Ofsted's work with schools. Watch the proceedings at the House of Commons.

Update 10/06/2024: In the lead-up to the UK General Election on 4 July 2024, a policy tracker published by Schools Week notes 'stuck schools' as one of 27 education policy areas the Labour party is expected to focus on if they form the next government.

Internationally, it was a key piece of evidence underpinning the ongoing reform of Law No. 20,529 in Chile, which determines the consequences of inspection in primary and secondary schools educating over 4 million students aged 6-17. Ministers and policymakers tasked with the redesign of the inspection policy at Chile’s local equivalent of Ofsted, known as the Quality Agency, have used the research as evidence to support policy change oriented to replace closing schools that failed an inspection, with strategies to better supporting their improvement.

By Sarah-Jane Gregori.


Credit: Ashok Sinha via Adobe Stock.