Why do schools fail?
Schools are complex organisations with their own unique cultures and values. Although they are all concerned with learning and teaching, and preparing students for their next stage in life, their environments and approaches to learning, and how it is organized and managed, often differ. The school diversity in itself does not necessarily lead to poor outcomes and every school must be assessed on its own merit. However, the scrutiny of failing schools suggests that, for whatever reasons, they often have some characteristics in common: unstable leadership, ineffective staff performance management, low expectations of students, high teacher turnover and difficulties with recruiting high caliber staff.
According to the latest official figures, four out of 10 primary schools failed to reach the government 2017 target and one in eight (12%) of secondary schools in England failed to meet a new set of national standards based on 2017 GCSE results. Among those 365 underperforming secondary schools, six were rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, the school watchdog. These statistics demonstrate that schools fail thousands of young people in the system that is defined by the students’ end-of-year test results.
High level of school diversity and variety of operational approaches mean that there are no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions for instant improvement. Additionally, research indicates that schools are so preoccupied with accountability measures and end results that often processes leading to achieving these outcomes are lost along the way. This can have a negative impact on final achievement because not enough resources are allocated to developing learning cultures and consistent approaches to learning, ultimately leading to improved end outcomes.
At the centre of school inspections, are school improvement and monitoring of quality standards. Ofsted, responsible for inspecting all maintained schools and some other educational institutions, states that its “goal is to achieve excellence in education and skills for learners of all ages”. Despite this noble aim, independent research indicates that there is little evidence that the current system of inspections leads to school improvement. On the contrary, Frank Coffield, UCL, Institute of Education, asserts that alongside some benefits of the national monitoring of the quality of education, there are also some undesirable consequences, which reinforce failure, especially with reference to schools with challenging intakes. The evidence from an empirical study by the Education Policy Institute suggests that the “most deprived schools are systematically more likely to be down-graded than the least disadvantaged”. Coffield concludes that: “The very schools that need most help are further harmed by inaccurate and biased Ofsted reports that make recruitment and retention even more difficult.”
Recently, Bill Gates expressed his disappointment. He feels that despite the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation huge investments in public education, “by and large, schools are still falling short on the key metrics of quality education”.
The search for quick common fixes for all failing schools is problematic because their circumstances and cultures are unique. Unlike successful schools, poor performance schools often lack clear vision, robust strategic planning and rigorous self-evaluation. Ineffective assessment systems and poor understanding of how assessment and constructive feedback can be used to advance learning can lead to underachievement. High focus on end outcomes and accountability measures, and poor engagement with processes and strategies leading to achieving these end results, can contribute to underperformance.
Discussing failing schools raises some uncomfortable questions relating to how we identify a school’s underperformance and what is done about it before generations of students fail to receive proper education or qualifications. If the current system of school evaluations is flowed and fails to identify poor performance for early intervention, then its fitness for purpose should be examined. Perhaps a system of truly independent school evaluations with a formative focus combined with validated self-reviews informed by 'pupils' voice', would support school improvement in a better way and reduce student failure. Greater engagement with reflective practice, where critical self-assessment is part of day-to-day monitoring and informs future development, can only contribute to school improvement and reduce failure.
Department for Education (DfE) data; 2017 key stage 2 tests and GCSE examination results.
Stein, L et al. (2013). Education Disrupted: Strategies for Saving Our Schools. R&L Education.
Goodman, J. (2011). The Spirit versus the Letter. King’s College London.