Stuck schools

Knowsley is a local authority area to the East of Liverpool. It is a geographically fragmented borough, comprising swathes of countryside, the two old Lancashire towns of Preston and Whiston, and several areas of unattached housing. It is one of the most deprived parts of the country. Around 20% of working-age people in Knowsley receive some form of out-of-work benefit and a third of its children live in some of the worst deprived wards in the country. For some families, unemployment cuts across generations.

Aside from the high levels of poverty, Knowsley is also marked out by its lack of diversity. 97% of the population are white and 81% declare themselves to be Christian, the highest level in the country. Knowsley is as white-working class a community as you are likely to find.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, educational outcomes have consistently been amongst the worst in England. Famously, in 2016, Knowsley became the first local authority in the country to offer no A Level courses in any of its post-16 education institutions.

2005 heralded a new era for Knowsley’s schools. The then Labour government were investing heavily in their flagship Building Schools for the Future programme. Knowsley, a firmly Labour held constituency (no other parties would field a candidate against the dominant labour council), were the prime candidate for government investment and a willing participant in the progressive wave of change in education. All 11 secondary schools in Knowsley were flattened to the ground and re-opened as 7 new-build super-schools, at the cost of £157m.

Senior education officers in the Council decided that most of the young people in Knowsley were ‘kinaesthetic learners’: they needed to be active and experimental, not sat behind rows of desks. Therefore, the new schools would be built to cater for these students. This ideological change was signalled by the re-naming of schools to ‘centres of learning’ and of teachers to ‘progress leaders’. The schools were designed as vast open spaces, known as ‘base areas’, with curtains separating the different learning ‘zones’. Students joined in the trend for re-naming too, referring to the new schools as ‘wacky warehouses’. The name stuck.

Problems soon manifested themselves. The potential for students to disrupt was multiplied by the looseness of the physical space. Teachers struggled to keep track of where students ‘in their class’ were located. Where poor behaviour occurred, it was now witnessed by countless others. The acoustics of the learning spaces were terrible, with noise from one class adding to that of the next. The dysfunctional lives experienced by many students in Knowsley were met with more disorder. What should have been designed as a safe space almost intentionally magnified randomness, building unpredictability into the daily experience of students who needed structure and routine.

Teachers and headteachers, also subjects of this experiment, soon complained. An expensive building programme was instigated to put corridors and classrooms back into the schools to restore some physical boundaries as a first step to bringing order.

This whole episode in the history of schooling in Knowsley did nothing to improve its reputation, or educational outcomes for the children of the area. Many parents with the resource and aspiration to secure a better education for their children continue to send them outside of the borough. In recent years, almost half of 11 year olds enrol in a school outside of Knowsley, and at age 16 even more take advantage of neighbouring colleges where A Levels are still available. This exodus further weakens the educational experience for those remaining in Knowsley’s schools, depleting resources and reducing the economies of scale needed to offer a broad and challenging curriculum. Is education in Knowsley stuck in a cycle of dysfunction?

The stuck schools dilemma

In its 2017/18 annual report, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Schools (more commonly known as Ofsted) provided a commentary on what they tellingly term ‘stuck schools’. A stuck school, they explain, is one which has been graded by Ofsted as ‘requires improvement, satisfactory or inadequate at every inspection since 2005’.

According to Ofsted, there were around 490 ‘stuck’ schools during the period their report covers. Of these, around 290 were primary schools, 190 were secondary schools, and the remainder were special schools or pupil referral units (schools for pupils presenting particularly challenging behaviours and/or permanently excluded from a mainstream school). These schools account for around 2% of primary and 5% of secondary schools.

Stuck schools are not evenly distributed across the country, or typical in their intake. ‘Stuck’ secondary schools are more likely to be found in the north and Midlands than the south and east of England. They are also likely to have a well above average proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals and be White British in ethnic origin. In primary schools, an average of 39% of pupils in stuck schools are eligible for free school meals against an average of 24% for all schools. In secondary schools, 43% of pupils in stuck schools are eligible in comparison to 28% across all schools. Without wishing to over-simplify the picture, stuck schools are much more likely to be located in predominantly white, working class communities in the Midlands and the north of England.

What is ironic in Ofsted’s description of the ‘stuck schools’ problem is the inference in their choice of label that it is the school that is stuck rather than the community which it serves. The data they present points clearly towards features of the demographic of these neighbourhoods as correlated to poor educational outcomes, not towards features of the schools themselves. Perhaps if the language of ‘stuck communities’ replaced the rhetoric of ‘stuck schools’ we might begin to look beyond the analytical dead-end of stopping when we find a school that ‘isn’t working’, and seeking ways to ‘fix it’.

As in so many complex areas, we fail to address the mistakes of the past when we ignore the systemic causes of error, misfortune and dysfunction.

Heads will roll

Sadly, the tendency to find human error and not look to the systemic factors that led to this error is as prevalent in the school system as it is in child protection (explored in this previous post). The Department for Education’s own figures reveal that almost a third of headteachers now leave within three years of taking up post. A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research published in 2017 found that headteachers were more likely to leave if they worked in schools with poor Ofsted ratings, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a poor inspection.

In an article in the Guardian in October 2017, five such headteachers were interviewed. One, James Wiggins, describes the feeling of shock and numbness when he was ordered out of the blue to clear his office following an alleged vote of no-confidence by the governing body (which he later found to be a lie). The article describes the rationale for Wiggins’ dismissal:

Wiggins’ academy trust had told him the expectation was to achieve “outstanding” in his primary school’s first Ofsted. From the off, he said, “I made it clear [with the intake we had] that this wasn’t going to happen.” But within days of the Sats scores being published – with results that he’d predicted – he was out. “I’d been through Ofsted a few times before and got good and outstanding, so there wasn’t a leadership problem,” he says. “I just don’t think they liked what I said.”

All those interviewed had similar experiences in that their removal from post came after one set of poor exam results, a negative Ofsted report, or even a plateauing of previously increasing results. The expectations for the time taken to improve a school, often in very challenging circumstances, are increasing, with as little as 18 months given to a trust to show improvements. This is despite figures showing that it takes on average more than six years to move a school from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’ rating by Ofsted, and almost eight years to move from an ‘inadequate’ to a ‘good’.

At least some of the pressure on timescales appears to be coming from the threat of ‘re-brokering’: this is where a school is removed from one multi-academy trust to be placed in the hands of another as the former is deemed to have failed to address the under-performance of the school. To avoid a school being re-brokered, trusts are under pressure to be tough on low standards and achieve rapid improvement. The Guardian article quotes a particularly concerning conversation between a school leadership specialist at Nottingham Trent University, Chris Rolph, and a regional schools’ commissioner who said: “You’re wasting your time trying to develop people – you need to move them on.’

This ‘under new management’ approach is nothing new. In Knowsley, more than 60 schools have ‘disappeared’ over the last three decades, either merged, renamed or closed. However, since the creation of academy chains (whereby schools are run, not by local authorities, but by multi-academy trusts, accountable directly to central government), the ability to move schools from one legal entity to another has increased the pace of turnover in leadership.

The political fear created by the rhetoric of ‘stuck schools’ has prompted a desire to prove that things will change, and fast. Human error, in the form of the alleged ineptitude of teachers and headteachers, is where the analysis has stopped. Until policy makers are able to acknowledge, understand and address the systemic complexities which underlie the dysfunctional parts of our education landscape, we will remain stuck.

Clustering effects

As Ofsted appear to acknowledge, persistently underperforming schools are far more likely to exist in certain types of community. What sets these communities apart is their lack of diversity, as we saw in Knowsley where the population is skewed towards White British, deprived families. The clustering of poverty within a particular school’s catchment has been shown to lead to worse opportunities for the most disadvantaged, lowered aspirations, and lower participation rates in education. This ‘clustering effect’ is not minimal, but arguably accounts for much of the difference in educational outcomes that we see across different regions and school types.

A 2019 study into the impact of the ‘clustering effect’ on school performance concludes that increasing the diversity of a school’s intake (i.e. reducing the difference between the demographic make-up of schools nationally) would, in and of itself, make a significant contribution towards closing the attainment gaps between students of different social classes within the UK. Put another way, the authors’ claim is that what we perceive to be poor school effectiveness is quite possibly no more than the effect of a clustering of deprivation factors.

In the context of the themes discussed so far in this post, we might view the ‘clustering effect’ described as the compression into a small space of randomness, disorder and uncertainty: complexity feeding off itself to the extent that it becomes chaotic. For example, if a young person comes from a family background in which crime and anti-social behaviour is common, we might reasonably expect that young person to be more likely to become involved in criminal behaviour themselves. If he lives in an area where this level of criminal activity is rare, and the school he attends contains a mix of people of different backgrounds and familial experiences, he will witness greater levels of social stability and have role models beyond his own family unit. However, if this young person lives in an area where such experiences are clustered, he will be disproportionately more likely to witness anti-social behaviour, not just because of the number of people behaving anti-socially but because the clustering of this phenomenon will feed off itself. Such behaviour becomes normal – less socially stigmatised – and group behaviours (such as the forming of gangs) will legitimise and amplify the disorder.

Not only does the concentration of disorder have a multiplier effect, volatility is also introduced as random events are more likely to coincide and feed off each other. From the point of view of a school in such circumstances, young people will present with multiple layers of disadvantage and be subject to coincidence of misfortune. For example, a young person may arrive at school having witnessed domestic violence which has driven them from the family home, spent the night sleeping on a settee in an older friend’s flat, been exposed to drug misuse as a result, and arrive for a day’s learning tired, traumatised and hungover.

Many young peoples’ lives are complicated and challenging, not just those who live in a deprived community. However, where disorder is clustered, the complicated tips over into complexity, then chaos. Clusters of children with chaotic lives, thrown together every day in the same school building, almost inevitably leads to a ‘stuck school’. A lack of diversity is the enemy of stability.

A new order

In September 2016, Knowsley launched an Education Commission in a fresh attempt to address its educational performance. The group, chaired by Christine Gilbert, a former Chief Inspector of Ofsted, were under no illusions about the challenge ahead. The man responsible for the initiative, the executive director of children’s services in Knowsley, Paul Boyce, stated that the aim was to “make education irresistible”, but admitted “that’s the hard bit, really, because that’s about changing the hearts and minds of families.”

Since the radical re-building programme of a decade before, the political and ideological landscape had shifted radically. A new ‘traditionalism’ had replaced the favoured progressive school-turnaround model, with firm discipline, smart uniforms and a no-excuses culture popular amongst a new-breed of headteachers and policy advisors. Lord Derby Academy in Huyton, under the leadership of Principal Victoria Green, expressed surprise at the little resistance from pupils to the new regime; ‘The feedback we get is that they like the discipline, and in particular they like the consistency.’ Perhaps, given the lack of order and predictability in the world outside the school, consistency was indeed a welcome feature of this new regime.

The question remains as to whether the latest approach to school improvement in Knowsley will succeed where previous attempts have failed. The 2019 performance tables show that there has been considerable success amongst primary schools in the area at improving outcomes, at least as measured by the test taken at the end of primary education. However, the turnaround in secondary school outcomes is yet to happen. Five of the six secondary schools achieved results ‘well below average’ in 2019, with students in the lowest rated school achieving GCSE results on average a grade below similar students nationally. Lord Derby Academy has fared slightly better, with results being merely ‘below average’. In April 2019, the school was rated ‘requires improvement’ for a second time by Ofsted: given the school ‘opened’ in 2014 (which is the euphemism used to indicate the date at which the school became part of a new or different multi-academy trust – the point at which the Ofsted clock is reset), Lord Derby Academy is not yet classified as a ‘stuck school’, but it may be on its way to achieving this unfortunate title.

What we can say for certain is that any success achieved by the schools in Knowsley will be hard won. Creating an oasis of order in a sea of complexity is no easy task.

References not linked in the post

Fight or flight: How stuck schools are overcoming isolation (Ofsted)

The Making of an Education Catastrophe (The Guardian)

The Greatest Challenge (FFT Datalab)

Almost a third of heads leave… (The Telegraph)

Disappeared: The headteachers sacked and gagged by academy trusts (The Guardian)

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