How can we best support coasting schools?

By Matt Walker

Friday 10 July 2015

The waiting is finally over, and the government has now set out their definition of what constitutes a ‘coasting school’.  In my earlier post I explored some of the potential issues around the criteria chosen, and many others have commented too (see for example education datalab’s ‘Choose your own coasting secondary school’ tool).  While discussion of the definition will inevitably continue, it’s also important to consider the government’s proposed remedy.

A definition comes into focus

Schools eligible for intervention will be those which fall below a new ‘coasting’ level for three years. In 2014 and 2015 the definition will apply to those schools that have seen fewer than 60 per cent of pupils achieving five good GCSEs and have a below-average proportion of pupils making acceptable progress. From 2016, the level will be set based on Progress 8 – the new accountability measure, which shows how much progress pupils in a particular school make between the end of primary school and their GCSEs. At primary level, the definition will apply to those schools who have seen fewer than 85 per cent of children achieving an acceptable secondary-ready standard in reading, writing and maths over the course of three years, and who have seen insufficient pupil progress.

As the ‘coasting’ definition will capture performance in 2014, 2015 and 2016, it won’t be until 2016/2017 that we know how many schools will be captured within the definition. However, based on current performance the DfE expect the definition to result in ‘hundreds’ of coasting schools being identified and targeted for improvement. But what do we know about the nature of the support that will be provided, and the extent to which this builds on what we know works in supporting coasting schools?

Is the academy model the best solution?

The government’s regional schools commissioners (RSCs) – supported by Headteacher Boards – will assess whether or not the school has a credible plan to improve and ensure all children make the required progress. Those that can improve will be supported to do so by a team of ‘expert headteachers’, and those that cannot will be turned into academies under the leadership of school sponsors. The DfE regards this latter approach as ‘one of the best ways of improving underperforming schools’. But is it?

NFER has a growing portfolio of evidence on the performance of academies. Early findings suggested that school performance in sponsored academies (arguably more similar to ‘coasting’ schools than converter academies) has increased more quickly than in similar schools. There is little evidence available which looks at primaries, but in secondary schools the improvement is greatest in schools that have been academies for the longest, implying that the effect of academy status has a gradual impact on improving performance. However, as NFER’s Jack Worth has argued in a recent NFER Thinks paper, we need to better understand the mechanisms by which academies bring about improvements (for example to understand the relative contributions of new leadership and investment, autonomy, collaborative networks and new governance structures).

Conversely we also need to better understand the factors that lead to academies being less successful and the reasons why. For example, there is evidence to suggest that much of the ‘improvement’ has been due to the mix of qualifications used by academies. Our most recent research using the 2014 GCSE results (which excluded many vocational qualifications from counting towards school performance, and reduced the contribution to the total point score of those qualifications included) suggests the improvement was because of disproportionate use of GCSE equivalent qualifications in sponsored academies compared to similar maintained schools. Now that equivalents are not counted towards school performance, the sponsored academy improvement has all but disappeared (at least in the short-term, i.e. 2-4 years of being open). These findings raise questions about the strategy of turning coasting schools into academies under the leadership of school sponsors.

A staged approach to improvement

Under government plans, conversion to a sponsored academy (and the associated uncertainties around the benefits this will bring) will be seen as the last resort. The starting point will be to develop a plan for improvement which, with the right support, and if successfully implemented, will lead to schools improving their results.

NFER’s evaluation concluded that Gaining Ground was successful at improving outcomes for learners. Indeed, at the end of that two year programme, when compared to similar pupils at other similar schools, a typical pupil at a Gaining Ground school:

  • made an additional 0.22 levels of progress in English and mathematics
  • was 13 percentage points more likely to achieve five GCSEs graded A*-C including mathematics and English
  • experienced a reduction of 0.19 percentage points in the total number of lessons missed due to unauthorised absence.

So what can we learn from the evaluation of Gaining Ground that can help bring about the required improvements in schools that meet the new ‘coasting’ definition?

Collaboration is crucial: Gaining Ground showed that school-to-school support can be a particularly effective mechanism for helping to bring about school improvement. It demonstrated that schools can learn from more effective schools, but that these schools need to be carefully matched. It is not clear whether the support being proposed from 2016/2017 will be limited to that provided by individual ‘expert headteachers’, but Gaining Ground demonstrated the power and importance of collaborative relationships between staff at different levels, not just the level of senior leadership.

Targeted funding, alongside a specific challenge to schools, can catalyse action: While there has been no indication that coasting schools will receive financial support, Gaining Ground showed that modest financial incentives can play a part in driving improvement. Indeed, some headteachers argued that financial incentives were necessary in order to purchase the resources and support they required.

I suspect the success of the initiative will depend largely on the quality of the improvement planning process and subsequent support that coasting schools will receive. It has been highlighted elsewhere that RSCs are currently judged on the basis of how many schools they convert into academies (and that therefore there is a conflict of interest). The criteria for judging their effectiveness will need to change to avoid a built-in bias, and there will need to be a clear articulation of what additional benefits academisation would bring.