What is a coasting school?

By Matt Walker

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Writing recently in the Sunday Telegraph, the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, has said that she will introduce new powers to intervene in coasting schools. These schools, she said ‘will be put on immediate notice and be required to work with our team of expert headteachers. Those that aren’t able to demonstrate a clear plan for improvement will be given new leadership’. The proposals will be in a new bill due to be introduced in the Queen’s Speech today.

The proposals raise a lot of questions, not least, what exactly is a coasting school, and what does the evidence tell us about the approaches that are effective in turning them around? I will return to the evidence of what works in a future blog post, but I have suggested a definition and criteria in response to the first question below.

Possible definitions and criteria

NFER has firsthand experience of evaluating interventions designed to ‘tackle the problem of coasting schools’. Between 2009 and 2011, I led an evaluation of the impact of the ‘Gaining Ground Strategy’, a £40 million programme designed to support school improvement in secondary schools that had ‘reasonable-to-good GCSE examination results, but poor progression rates in English and mathematics’.

To be eligible for support, schools needed to have examination results above the then Key Stage 4 floor target of at least 30 percent of pupils achieving 5 A*-C grades at GCSE including English and mathematics. Poor progression rates were defined as having a significant proportion of pupils not making the expected three levels of progress in English and/or mathematics over Key Stages 3 and 4. Schools were prioritised which had such results for three consecutive years or more.

In addition, a range of other criteria was used to assess whether schools were eligible for support. These included:

  • strong prior attainment at KS2
  • expectations and aspirations of pupils not being commensurate with their ability; and
  • not being held sufficiently to account for their performance, as parents and governors did not have the tools or information to assess their performance.

To be clear, a ‘coasting school’ in the context of Gaining Ground was not a failing school in that it would not have included schools in the Ofsted category of ‘inadequate’. A key consideration as to whether a school was included in the Gaining Ground Strategy was whether it was judged to have the capacity to improve, albeit with additional support. Those that didn’t, required a more enhanced form of support.

So do we think that Nicky Morgan has her sights set on schools that share a similar set of characteristics? Writing in The Telegraph in November 2011, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, declared that the previous Labour government ‘set a narrow definition of coasting schools, which allowed many to slip through the net undetected’, and that his government was ‘going to widen it so that more average schools are pressed to do better’. This suggests that the criteria for what constitutes a coasting school could be widened rather than narrowed. The implication is that the number of schools in focus will be larger, but given the funding constraints facing the government, it is unlikely that the same levels of funding, if any, will be made available to support improvement for these schools. It will therefore be all the more important to learn the lessons from what intervention/support is most effective, a topic I will explore in a future blog post.