Ofsted Annual Report 2015 – expert reaction

Ofsted has published its fourth annual report in which it warned of a north-south divide in England’s secondary schools. 

Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw said, “We’ve seen a significant difference in the quality of teaching between the South and the Midlands and the North, a significant difference in terms of the quality of leadership… and we need to worry about this as a nation.” 

The report highlighted:

  • North-south gap in school standards
  • Primary schools improving, but weaker secondary
  • Teacher shortage affecting many schools
  • Need for better leadership in underperforming schools
  • Structural change – such as academy status – “can only do so much”
  • Free school standards “broadly in line” with other schools
  • Early education “never stronger”
  • Prison education “declined even further

Here academics give their reaction to the report findings. 

Comment from John Howson, Honorary Norham Fellow at University of Oxford and visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University, who is an expert in data relating to teacher retention and recruitment:

“Sir Michael is right to highlight issues in teacher recruitment. The failure of the coalition government to act quickly on warning signs has created a crisis where schools cannot find enough qualified teachers. This wastes resources on unnecessary profit for the private sector but more importantly affects the life chances of our children.

The National Teaching Service will not solve this problem and must not be used as a distraction with the public. As an urgent first step, the government should once again abate the fees for all graduates training to be teachers as was the case up to 2010.”

References: John Howson has analysed data relating to teacher retention and recruitment on his blog.

Comment from Tanya Ovenden-Hope, Director of Education, The Cornwall College Group, and Visiting Research Fellow, Plymouth University, who has researched coastal schools:

“SchoolDASH data for GCSE results in 2015 support our findings that schools in coastal towns have specific challenges that impact on student outcomes. SchoolDASH found that students in coastal schools achieve on average 3% lower for five GCSEs A*-C (including English and maths) than students from inland schools.

Factors of socio-economic deprivation, such as inter-generational unemployment, was seen by school leaders and teachers in our study. SchoolDASH data shows that coastal schools have a more deprived intake, with 3% more pupils eligible for free school meals – a figure similar to the achievement gap.

There are always exceptions, but the a national picture is emerging that supports our suggestion of overall lower performance in coastal schools. However, the schools in our study were using their move to academy status to challenge the predecessor schools underperformance and provide new opportunities for their students.

The schools in our study had strategies for improvement in common that were improving performance, including inclusive and visionary leadership, strong educationally informed sponsorship, investment in staff through CPD, a focus on improving student behaviour and raising student (and staff) expectations, and involving the community (including engaging parents wherever possible). The challenges of location isolation for staff recruitment, poor parental engagement and low aspirations required a whole school approach to change a culture of underperformance.”

References: Ovenden-Hope, T and Passy, R (2015) Coastal Academies report

Comment from Professor Stephen Gorard, School of Education, Durham University:

“Sir Michael Wilshaw has now recommended that sub-regional challenges should be developed according to the particular context of the area. Would such an approach help to tackle white working class underachievement specifically, or would this simply devolve the problem?

The key difference between proposed regional or sub-regional ‘challenges’ like this and the original London Challenge lies in funding. The London Challenge was set up in era of relative economic prosperity and was reasonably well-funded. In addition to any activities or changes, schools got extra money. It is not reasonable to expect other and poorer parts of England, such as the North East, to achieve the same without the same funding.”

North-South divide explained in more detail from Professor Gorard with reference to the research:

“There is a North (and Midlands) South divide in secondary school outcomes in England, on average. Is this attributable, as Michael Wilshaw says, to poorer teaching and school leadership in the North? Can it be solved by a kind of northern ‘London Challenge’, but without the funding that went with it? Or can the differences be more easily explained in terms of differential resources – both those of the residents in North and South, on average, and the level of state funding received?

The London Challenge has been widely hailed as a success, but it was understandably implemented as policy and practice, rather than in the controlled conditions needed for research. This means that a number of other explanations are available to explain its apparent success. This warranting principle (if the conclusion drawn were actually false how else could we explain the evidence for it?) is fundamental to drawing clear and perhaps costly conclusions from administrative data.

When the Challenge was planned there were other economic regions in England with lower average attainment, and higher poverty gradients. Therefore, it is not clear that London should have been selected in the first place. Even in the official evaluation which reported only positive outcomes (a rare phenomenon for any real-world trial), it is clear that children in London were ahead in all categories in 2003 when the London Challenge started (Figure 3.3, p.21 in Hutchings et al. 2012). It is therefore not clear that in each category of Figure 3.3 any changes over time are disproportionately in favour of London children, for example.

The relative growth of the level 2 indicator (5+ GCSEs including English and maths) in London does not really take off until 2007 and later (see Figure 3.1, p.20 in Hutchings et al. 2012). This is confounded with a change in the way this indicator was measured from 2005 onwards, the addition of English and maths to the official metric, and the economic downturn which could have influenced many other factors including who did or did not attend fee-paying schools. Changes in patterns of school attendance are not considered in the official evaluation, but they present an issue that might influence London differentially because of its high proportion of fee-payers compared to many other regions. A similar apparent impact might occur if the growth in inclusion of children from special schools (likely to perform worse on average) was greater outside London over this period.

Eligibility for free school meals (FSM) is based on a threshold. Some FSM-eligible pupils will come from families near that threshold and may drift in and out of eligibility during their school career. Others will be near the bottom of the income scale. If the proportion of such pupils differs, for example between London and North East England, and if the level of deprivation within FSM eligibility is linked to average attainment (Boliver et al. 2015), then this factor alone could explain differences apparently linked to the London Challenge.

More obviously, London has always received higher per-pupil funding than schools in the north. The London Challenge provided even more money, exacerbating the gap in funding that already existed, and to a great extent the otherwise admirable pupil premium funding has exacerbated it more. The latter sounds strange because the premium funding follows the poorest pupils (mostly those eligible for free school meals) and so should go more to the poorest areas. However, the premium is awarded on the basis of whether a pupil has ever been eligible for FSM. This leads to distinct unfairness.

For example, the proportion of pupils ever eligible in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea (one of the wealthiest places in the country) is the same as in Middlesbrough (one of the poorest). This means that, proportionate to their total pupil numbers, both areas receive the same premium funding. This is absurd, and totally contrary to the purpose of the policy. Of those ever eligible in Kensington the majority are no longer so (they were more likely either ‘artificially poor’ or previously near the income support threshold). But of those ever eligible in Middlesbrough most still are (and likely to be further from the income support threshold).

These are different kinds of poverty that neither the funding nor OFSTED context figures take any notice of. This is not an argument against good teaching and good leadership in schools, but a recognition that these might already exist in the North (and Midlands) as much as in the South. Maybe the problem lies elsewhere – and differential funding is a more obvious candidate.”

References: Boliver, V., Gorard, S. and Siddiqui, N. (2016) Does the use of contextual indicators make UK HE admissions fairer?, Education Sciences, 5, 4, http://www.mdpi.com/2227-7102/5/4/306

Hutchings, M., Greenwood, C., Hollingworth, S., Mansaray, A. and Rose, S. with Minty, S. and Glass, K. (2012) Evaluation of the City Challenge programme, DFE Research Report DFE-RR215, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/184093/DFE-RR215.pdf

 Press release about the Ofsted annual report can be found here.



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