Classrooms in deprived areas are becoming a “dumping ground” for problem children, with hundreds of thousands of pupils in England spending their entire school careers in some of the worst-rated learning environments, an Ofsted inspection suggests.
Around 415 schools in England are described as “stuck” in a cycle of low performance, meaning they have not achieved a “good” or “outstanding” report by the watchdog since September 2006, despite having been inspected at least four times.
There are an estimated 210,000 pupils being educated in stuck schools, despite the system of support, intervention and inspection designed to improve schools, Ofsted said.
Headteachers and subject, department and year group leaders at the worst schools cited geographic isolation proving unattractive to potential teachers, poor parental motivation and unstable pupil populations among their greatest challenges.
Ofsted found stuck schools suffered from a “deep and embedded culture” making them resistant to change, while others were “inundated” with central and local government initiatives which failed to match up with that institution’s needs.
But the National Education Union (NEU) criticised the report, describing Ofsted as “part of the problem”.
Ofsted declined to publish a list of stuck schools but said Derby, Southend-on-Sea and Darlington were the three local authorities with the highest proportion of stuck schools.
Surrey, Devon and Manchester had the lowest proportion, although they declined to provide further data.
Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman said: “Stuck schools are facing a range of societal problems such as cultural isolation, a jobs market skewed towards big cities and low expectations from parents.
“However, we have shown that schools in these places can still be good or better by holding teachers to high standards, tackling bad behaviour and getting the right leadership in place.
“Our inspectors have found that the majority of schools in challenging areas are providing children with a good education that sets them up to succeed in later life.
“What the remaining stuck schools need is tailored, specific and pragmatic advice that suits their circumstances – not a carousel of consultants. They are asking Ofsted to do more to help, and we agree.”
The number of stuck schools represents around 2% of all state-funded schools in England, while there were 65 schools which were deemed “recently unstuck” after having had two consecutive “good” inspection reports.
The report found many stuck schools reported low levels of literacy and employment among parents.
It found some children “are reportedly sent to school hungry and allowed to stay up late on social media or to access inappropriate material on the internet”, while others “try to get excluded so that they can return home because they are concerned that their parents are victims of domestic abuse”.
Ofsted spoke to one senior member of staff at a stuck school who said: “It was the ‘dumping ground’, seen as the ‘toilet of schools’, with under capacity.”
Another added: “We get all the mid-year transfers and I’ve yet to see one where actually there aren’t serious concerns, issues either with safeguarding or behaviour…
“So we very much feel like we’re a dumping ground.”
Ofsted, while distancing itself from the term, agreed that a cycle of poor performance had led to pupils leaving, creating space for those moved on from other schools.
It also said stuck schools – which are more likely to be in deprived areas – cautioned that they received “too much advice and that this advice was ‘thrown’ at them without enough thought”.
The report added: “When it was seen to work, the advice was tailored to the problems within the school and the individuals involved spent time working with staff.
“When it was seen to fail, there was too much general, one-size-fits-all advice, with individuals spending too little time and giving too little thought to the priorities of the school.”
It also described how there was a “less constructive” union voice in some schools, particularly with regards to strike action.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint NEU general secretary, said: “Ofsted identifies the problem of ‘stuck’ schools but persistently and resolutely fails to recognise its own role in creating the problem.
“Schools in deprived circumstances are much more likely to find it hard to get out of the Ofsted category than schools in leafy suburbs.
“Fear of Ofsted is a key factor in school leader and teacher flight from these schools.
“Far from being a force for educational improvement in the areas that need it most, Ofsted is unfortunately part of the problem, not the solution.”
Stephen Rollett, curriculum and inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Ofsted highlights that one problem in stuck schools is the lack of stable leadership because of a churn of head teachers.
“But this problem is the result of an accountability system of inspections and performance tables which is extremely harsh and makes leadership perilous.”
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, and chairman of the School Improvement Commission, said: “Some 86% of schools are now ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ but that rising tide of improvement has not lifted all boats.
“If we want to help those schools that are ‘stuck’, we must urgently re-balance holding them to account with helping them to improve.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “There is more to do and we will continue our relentless focus on standards by backing teachers and intervening where there is entrenched under-performance.
“Ofsted plays an invaluable role in improving standards and we are working with them to look at how best to support these schools.
“We have also created a specialist academy trust to work with these schools and make improvements, as well as six new training hubs to ensure the best leaders can provide support.”