Coasting schools: why the Education Bill proposals will harm the most disadvantaged

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16 July 2015 by ATL
The designation ‘coasting’ severely disadvantages maintained schools – and is designed to do so.

Schools with deprived pupil intakes will struggle to meet the threshold to avoid being deemed to be coasting, and will be named and shamed, even when they are providing an excellent education, given their intake and the progress their pupils make.

Dr Rebecca Allen’s educationdatalab evidence to the Education Bill committee is very strong on the inequity inherent in the government’s definition of coasting, both in absolute outcomes for schools, and in progress measures because schools with high ability intakes tend to demonstrate greater progress than schools without lower ability intakes.

The fact is that there are many academies which, on the government’s definition, would fall into the coasting category but will not be so identified, because the cure – academisation, forced or otherwise – has already been ministered to them but has not had the desired effect.

Coasting is not mentioned in the academies funding agreements and the government rejected a Labour amendment which would have widened the category of schools eligible to be included in the coasting category to academies.

Likewise, many schools in the leafy suburbs, with advantaged intakes, will escape the coasting designation – and no grammar school will fall into the category on the government’s definition. 

Nick Gibb, in committee, stated that all future funding agreements with academies will include a coasting clause. However, we do not know what that will be, or how it will be enacted and enforced.

This is, as Kevin Brennan said in committee: ‘a completely inadequate approach’.

If there is a need to designate some maintained schools as coasting, the need is even greater for academies. The excellent Louise Haigh, Labour member for Sheffield Heeley, pointed out some uncomfortable truths in the committee stage: the number of academies and free schools not meeting the 60% five A – C benchmark has almost trebled in the past three years, whereas the number of maintained schools failing to meet the threshold has halved. There is no rationale for maintained schools being eligible for the designation, and academy schools not.

Ofsted's response

In order to be in tune with the government’s definition of coasting, Ofsted has said it will designate more schools as requiring improvement. As Rebecca Allen’s and Becky Francis’s  evidence shows, 'requires improvement' is closely related to the quality of the school’s intake, not its performance.

Schools that require improvement and, in future, coasting schools, will find it more difficult to recruit staff and to recruit school leaders - whose jobs are as secure as their last Ofsted judgement.

Surprisingly, Michael Wilshaw talked about the problems these schools face in his recent speech to the Wellington Education Festival.

He talked of a two tier education system: the strongest schools, with privileged intakes, attract the best teachers, trainees and leaders, and enjoy stable staffing base, while low attaining schools with disadvantaged intakes suffer from turbulent staffing, find it difficult to recruit leaders, and are, as Becky Francis terms it ‘fragile’.

We know that disadvantaged children benefit the most and make the most progress from great teaching. We know that the variation in teaching quality within schools is at least four times greater than between schools and that if we could address this variation, and bring poor quality teaching up to good, then this would be the most effective driver of achievement for all children, but particularly for poor children.

However, instead of a focus on CPD, on teaching quality, and on schools learning from each other, as they did in the London Challenge, we have yet more structural solutions with only one structure: academies.

Academy sponsors

The quality of academy sponsors varies hugely – and in particular their ability to  raise the standards of education for poor children.  The process by which the DfE chooses academy sponsors is shrouded in mystery - we know that only 3% of academy sponsor applications are rejected – and we know that the DfE grades sponsors on the quality of the support they offer their schools, but the DfE refuses to give information on their assessment of sponsor quality because: ‘the disclosure of this information would prejudice, or would be likely to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs’ I have to say that this is, in my experience, the only example of the government being reluctant to publish grades.

But we know, the Sutton Trust and the DfE’s own data shows this, that there is huge variation in academy chain effectiveness.  And there is emerging evidence that academy chains are becoming more and more reluctant to grow their empires because they feel they cannot adequately support those schools already in their chains.

And all criticise the Education Funding Agency – which is under funded, under staffed and unable to exercise proper control of its functions.

Last year the National Audit Office issued a highly critical report into the EFA – how it will be able to exercise its functions over hundreds of new academies is a question the government has yet to answer.

This is a version of the MPs' briefing delivered by Mary Bousted at a joint union event in the House of Commons on Wednesday 15 July.