‘Satisfactory’ schools: Unsatisfactory?

December 5, 2011 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

The RSA’s report on ‘Satisfactory’ schools, published today, maps the location, improvement trends, and demographics of ‘Satisfactory’ schools. It shows that disadvantaged pupils are over-represented in these schools, and that inconsistent quality of teaching practice is the strongest characteristic of ‘Satisfactory’ schools. Especially key are the findings that: 1) many ‘satisfactory’ schools do not improve; 2) children who are already disadvantaged are disproportionately concentrated in these schools; and 3) that the problem, while inevitably contextual, may be addressed by concerted efforts to improve teaching.

‘Satisfactory’ schools have come in for some recent attention. First there was David Cameron’s reference to a ‘hidden crisis’ of ‘coasting schools’ which are “content to muddle through”. Ofsted’s annual report for 2010/11 revealed the number of these schools, including those ‘stuck’ at ‘Satisfactory’. We have worked with Ofsted to examine data and inspection reports for these schools. The RSA study concludes that the Ofsted term ‘Satisfactory’ should be scrapped, and replaced by ‘Performing Inconsistently’. As educators and inspectors have frequently observed, the term ‘Satisfactory’ is not understood as such, and the quality of practice underpinning the grade is usually mixed. The ascription ‘Satisfactory’ suits no one: it is pejorative enough to deter (some) families from choosing a school and to dampen staff morale, but at present there is little to help schools and their stakeholder constituents to identify what specifically needs to improve, and little support to achieve improvement. The term ‘Performing Inconsistently’ is a more accurate reflection of the school’s situation, and clearly flags that while some aspects of the school’s provision may be good or better, improvement is needed in others.

What has struck us in undertaking the study is the scale of the issue – around a third of schools are graded ‘Satisfactory’. While the government has concentrated policy on school structures (Free Schools and Academies), a significant proportion of schools – including some of the new models – continue to provide lower quality educational provision, and there is currently little in the way of a framework for supporting them to improve. We think such support is urgently required. Especially so given the finding that working class young people are over-represented in these schools, and that ‘satisfactory’ schools with disadvantaged populations are less likely than others to improve. Such findings highlight (in)equality of opportunity and lack of social justice, and may contribute to explanations for England’s very low rates of social mobility.

Our recommendations, including the changed title ‘Performing Inconsistently’, offer a more granular approach to improvement and accountability that allows identification and targeting of areas that need improving, and the highlighting of strengths that can be drawn upon to support weaker areas in a school. These schools need practical support to improve. Given our finding that the strongest characteristic of ‘satisfactory’ schools was inconsistency in quality of teaching, we focus on incentivising excellent teachers to teach at these schools, and on sharing and stimulating good practice.

Such work is vital to ensure that all pupils, whatever their background, attend a school that is ‘good’ or better. Critics will complain that such notions are relative, but the fact remains that some schooling systems are more consistent in quality than others – and the former tend to generate and value excellent teachers.


  • Esjax

    The debate about satisfactory schools presents a false dichotomy. As an OFSTED inspector I inspected over 400 primary schools when progress was a more important criterion than attainment in tests. I found that most coasting schools were in affluent areas where teaching was easy. It would have been simple to see these schools as good or outstanding because the pupils were school ready at 4, malleable and often well-versed in how schools work, and extremely well-supported at home, usually by well-educated parents. In one such school with very high test results I asked the Year 6 pupils how many of them had private tutors – all of them was the answer. The schools that were achieving the greatest improvements for children were in very poor areas of large cities in the main. There were some very poor schools in these areas as well, especially when the OFSTED regime first began. Many of them improved dramatically by the next inspection as local authorities got their acts together. In the better performing inner-city or poor rural schools, children often entered the nursery or reception class well below average expectations for their age. By the time they reached Year 6, most of them achieved average results in Year 6 tests. This was due to dedicated and focused teaching and support. Judged against progress, the teaching was good or outstanding. Judged against standards in tests it was satisfactory! How dare researchers skim over the good or excellent progress made in many of these satisfactory schools? How dare they ignore the impact of poverty on learning? How dare they condemn schools that lift their pupils’ ambitions, teach them how to behave, and help them make dramatic progress?

  • Esjax

    ‘The school works in a very demanding environment with high student mobility, exceptionally low student skills on entry and increasing numbers of students who are at the early stages of acquiring English. This challenging context has been exacerbated by some instability in staffing caused by the long-term absence of several teachers. In the face of these additional pressures the school is coping admirably and on balance, provides students with a satisfactory quality of education and delivers satisfactory value for money.’ This quote from the report illustrates the points I make in my earlier post. Although there is no reference to standards here, the fact that the school is coping admirably (commendably, creditably, well) might lead one to anticipate a citation of good, not satisfactory. Another case of words not meaning what they are supposed to mean?The report suggests that progress is a higher criterion in the sample secondary reports than is attainment. This appears to me to contradict the clear advice given by OFSTED and the DfE to inspectors that floor targets are the main criterion in judging the outcomes of a school for its oldest pupils. The DfE is currently chasing primary schools in areas of severe deprivation whose pupils have made what can only be judged to be good/excellent progress since entry in both personal and academic learning, but because their SAT results are marginally below the floor targets, are being threatened with losing their status and being forced to become academies, with possible sacking of the headteacher. This in schools that are extremely demanding to work in, with heads who give their all to ensure this good/excellent progress from very low beginnings.The report alludes to other aspects of learning than subjects, and quotes references to aspects of the Every Child Matters agenda that show how effectively some satisfactory schools perform in these areas. In some of these schools, this learning has to be prior to subject learning in order for the school to function. This should be measured alongside standards in subjects in order to determine the overall status of a school. Good progress in behaviour and personal development ought to be equivalent to subject attainment, and alongside good progress lead to a good overall judgement, despite floor targets. In the current standards climate I fear that there is little possibility of this.

  • Esjax

    Your attempt to find words to replace satisfactory as a school category has failed. From your own evidence, the complaint is that these schools are too consistent: they are always or nearly always satisfactory, so to label them inconsistent is inconsistent on your part. Why not use the simple tactic of outstanding, above average, average, below average, inadequate. This has the feel of measured scale, rather than opinion. The problem remains however that OFSTED and the DfE have abandoned progress and value added as key indicators for the contentious simplicity of SATs in primary and GCSEs in secondary. As you have indicated, pupils in affluent areas often attend ‘outstanding’ schools which are outstanding because these pupils attend there. Sadly, you have followed flawed logic to categorise satisfactory schools in areas of severe deprivation based on the test outcomes in Year 11 as actually (un)satisfactory. They are only deemed satisfactory in many cases despite the good/excellent progress many pupils make from entry to leaving because standards are average: for many of these schools this is exceptional, not mediocre. The real measure of a school, of teaching and learning, and of leadership: the efforts of the school and the students leading to above or well above average progress, beyond or well beyond expectations given the pupils’ starting points. You have been seduced by HMI who are advised not to clear an OFSTED report as showing a good school unless standards are above average. How can satisfactory teaching lead to good or better progress? How can satisfactory leadership guide pupils to make good/excellent progress from low initial levels to average levels?

    Your premise that there are too many satisfactory schools is weak, because many of these schools are better than the designation from OFSTED, due to progress being given lower status than standards/attainment.

    • Becky Francis

      Thanks for the detailed response, Esjax. Actually I debate whether our proposed alterative title ‘Performs Inconsistently’ is not accurate. The point it reflects is that good and even excellent practice WAS evident in most of these schools, but in pockets. So our proposed title reflects a more granular approach that doesn’t simply damn a school across the board but rather encourages (and supports) it to focus on improving areas of weakness.
      I also agree with you that context impacts on a school – schools in areas of disadvantage are inevitably having to work harder than those in advantaged localities, and I think it’s important this be recognised. On the other hand, it’s doubly important that expectations aren’t lowered because of a school’s demographic – clearly there are numerous examples of brilliant practice and achievement among schools in disadvantaged areas.
      Our report illustrated Ofsted’s focus on Progress rather than raw attainment figs (albeit I recognise the risk that this will change given shifting floor targets), and also gives lots of examples of some of the very bad practices kids were subject to in the ‘Satisfactory’ schools – it’s not just about the pupils.

  • Bex

    I teach in Kent – a wholly selective area.  The detrimental impact of 11+ testing coupled with an ofsted focused on attainment means that grammars are usually deemed ‘outstanding’ and secondary moderns ‘satisfactory’. These labels are rarely connected with what acually goes on in the different schools – especially with regard to teaching skills.

  • Becky Francis

    Thanks also to Bex – your point about the impact of the local schools market (including admissions) is a good one. Good area for further research

    • Bex

      Incentives for teachers was practised in the 1970s – the schools were called Social Priority Areas and teachers were given an SPA allowance for working in them.

      Marketisation of schools was designed so that a virtuous circle would occur – in order that schools populated and desired by the more affluent/knowing would emerge – and so it has.

      If school admission was by banding of prior attainment – so that each school had a balanced intake and admissions in a locality was by lottery – then it would be possible to make something meaningful from inspections.  Pigs flying would of course be more likely……