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8 January 2020

It’ll take more than money for Boris Johnson to make good on his promise of better schools

Ofsted's revelation that 200,000 children are stuck in schools unable to achieve a "good" rating shows the scale of the challenge.

By Freddie Whittaker

With all the election triumphalism, Labour’s leadership race and ongoing Brexit bluster, anyone would think the government doesn’t have a load of other important stuff to do that isn’t concerned with getting the UK out of the EU.

A Brexit election it may well have been, but Boris Johnson also made great overtures on issues of social policy, promising “better schools” on the steps of Downing Street on 13 December.

The revelation today that more than 200,000 pupils are now learning in schools rated less than “good” could not be a timelier reminder of why it’s important we hold him to his promise.

Ofsted has been banging on about so-called “stuck” schools for a while, and for good reason. We now know that there are 415 schools in England that haven’t had a positive grading from inspectors since 2006.

Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, once said that a single day spent in a failing school was a “day too long”. By that metric, the fact that hundreds of schools have been failing or requiring improvement for more than 13 years is nothing short of a national scandal.

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Ofsted’s research also tells us that most of these “stuck” schools are in areas of deprivation. It is notable that two of the three areas with the highest proportion of stuck schools – Derby and Darlington – are areas where the Tories gained seats from Labour last month.

When it comes to the reason why so many schools can’t get themselves up to a “good” rating, views inevitably differ across the education sector.

Some union figures blame Ofsted itself, pointing to evidence that schools in deprived areas are much more likely to struggle to improve their Ofsted grades than those in “leafy suburbs”.

Given Ofsted itself has admitted that under its new inspection regime, schools with more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are still less likely to be judged “good”, there is merit to the argument that the inspection system itself is letting down schools in the poorest areas, but it is by no means the only problem here.

The study claims that in some schools an “antagonistic union voice”, long-standing teacher workforce and “settled leadership team” is contributing to a “resistant and embedded culture”.

In response, unions insist that improving outcomes and looking after a school’s workforce are not mutually exclusive endeavours.

In other schools, unstable leadership, inexperienced workforces and high staff turnover are what is keep schools down, according to Ofsted.

Of course, the dire school funding situation resulting from almost a decade of real-terms cuts to budgets won’t have helped with these issues, but it’s critical the government doesn’t just assume the more generous settlement promised by Johnson et al last year will be a silver bullet.

When it comes to teacher and leader retention, workload and accountability pressures (both from Ofsted and central government) remain huge problems which, without action from the centre to correct them, will continue to keep schools in some of our most disadvantaged communities from flourishing.

It was heartbreaking last month to read that Andy Mellor, the former president of the National Association of Head Teachers, has left his headship in Blackpool because he believes he can do more to help disadvantaged pupils from outside the profession.

Stephen Tierney, another prominent school leader from the same area, has also thrown in the towel, with a final plea to Ofsted to do more to acknowledge school staff who go the extra mile in disadvantaged communities.

Blackpool, besides being another area where the Tories took a seat off Labour on December 12, is an “opportunity area”, where boosting social mobility is a priority for ministers.

What does it say about the state of our system when an area so in need of great leaders is losing them at the most critical time?

These are not isolated incidents. Official statistics show more teachers leave the profession every year than join it, despite rising pupil numbers. A crisis is building, and it’s going to take more than money to sort it out.

It is therefore essential that, despite their large majority, ministers do not become complacent about education.

The extra money on its way schools is welcome, but transforming the life chances of the most disadvantaged pupils in England is also going to require deep reflection on whether the systems we use to hold schools to account, and the culture they have created in schools, are fit for purpose.

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