‘Satisfactory’ schools: Unsatisfactory?
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.