The Unintended Consequences of Labelling ‘Stuck Schools’

Reading time: 4
Stuck Schools


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

Why do some schools continue to under-perform?

Ofsted has provided the teaching profession with an unhelpful term, ‘Stuck Schools’. This post offers some analysis to help policymakers…

A lifetime of ‘bad’ education…

HMCI Amanda Spielman said: “In some pockets of the country, 2 whole cohorts of children have gone through all their primary or all their secondary school life without ever attending a good school – that’s 13 years or more [and a decision made by the government]. At the end of August 2019, there were still an estimated 210,000 pupils being educated in stuck schools…”

To be fair, Ofsted has conducted some decent research on underperforming schools, which kind of begs the question, what were they doing ten years ago when these schools started to underperform?

Research limitations

They also admit their own research limitations: “…qualitative study of this kind, we had a healthy and good-sized sample of 20 schools. However, the 10 stuck schools that we visited represent just over 2% of all stuck schools and so cannot be considered representative.”

All in all, a snapshot of 10 schools within a system exceeding 24,000 organisations across England, and a tiny proportion of views collected from all those who work within each school. However, it is a valiant effort, yet has failed to consider funding implications and parental influence. I am pleased to see the income deprivation affecting children index (IDACI) methodology considered; Ofsted matched their “list at the time of roughly 490 stuck schools to a list of unstuck schools, pairing together schools with similar contextual data.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A closer look at systemic reasons…

In my view, teaching in a challenging school comes with no surprises. It’s disappointing that Ofsted, although they acknowledge “geographical isolation and unstable pupil populations make good education harder to deliver”, they offer few solutions. Unstable leadership is often a result of the Ofsted judgement itself, placing a school further into a spiral of decline, struggling to recruit and attract any teachers.

As a result, there is unclear direction and lack of school oversight due to unforeseen changes of leadership. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve heard teachers and pupils say ‘ideas will come and go’ as people at the top change direction. Turnover is high, not only in the teaching population, but also at leadership level, and those very schools are isolated from appointing newly qualified teachers, Teach First or are provided with any additional funding to bring about change. Often, the default mode is to parachute in expertise from those working in schools labelled as successful…

Analysing Stuck Schools further

SchoolDash, analysing Ofsted and the DfE’s own data suggests “the surprise is not that some schools remain stuck for many years on end, but rather that any of them are able to overcome the considerable headwinds that disproportionately affect schools with low Ofsted ratings.”

Low-rated schools do become ‘dumping grounds’ for pupils who other schools would rather not admit. This is an unintended consequence of government league table policy, and I suspect will continue for decades until we decide school improvement can be achieved another way. Schools with a higher proportion of pupils with free school meals will struggle to be rated highly by Ofsted. Fact.

Stuck SchoolsSource: SchoolDash

Stuck schools have fewer pupils…

In terms of occupancy (the number of pupils as a percentage of total school capacity), ‘Outstanding’ schools have mean values of just over 100% (ie, their pupil numbers are, on average, slightly higher than their official capacity), while ‘Inadequate’ primary schools have a mean occupancy rate of 88% and secondary schools just 71%. We can also see that low-rated schools take far greater proportions of poorer pupils and smaller proportions of those with high prior attainment, whether at primary school or secondary school.

Of course, it’s widely recognised that good schools push up nearby house prices – something I am currently researching for my doctorate – which tends to correlate with higher prior attainment. And, even if we compare schools with their local pupil populations (ie, the sum of all pupils in nearby schools), lower-rated schools still have more than their fair share of poorer pupils.

The challenges for schools labelled ‘stuck’

Low-rated schools have higher proportions of teaching positions that are vacant or temporarily filled. Consistent with this, they spend much more money on supply teachers and also tend to have slightly lower proportions of teachers over 50. These schools then struggle to attract experienced teachers to help younger teachers solve, complex classroom problems. We also know due to recent government decisions, more experienced teachers are not paid as well. It is no surprise that schools tarnished by Ofsted ratings are delivering a poorer quality of education and wallow in poverty for years after Ofsted has been and gone. You would think the government would hold Ofsted to account for the inequality they are perpetuating within the system?

Ofsted alternatives

  1. Schools can’t control the areas in which they find themselves, but they can try to make their own intakes representative of the local population – academically, socioeconomically and ethnically. In some cases there might be good reasons for a school to be out of balance with its local community – grammar schools and certain types of faith school are arguably intended to segregate pupils – but leaders and inspectors (as well parents and politicians) should at least be asking themselves why, and whether anything can be done about it. Indeed, how about making this an explicit criterion on which Ofsted judges school effectiveness?
  2. Second, it seems clear that low-rated schools struggle even more than most to hire, motivate and retain staff. I know this story very well! A contributing factor is surely the lack of established ways for teachers to earn lasting recognition for contributing to underperforming schools rather than joining ones that are already doing well. This is something that can really only be tackled at the national level.
  3. The Department for Education should provide incentives for the most-able and experienced teachers to take some risks and go to the schools where the need for them is greatest.
  4. I have outlined in my 5 Teaching Ideas to Bin in 2020. The Department for Education (and Ofsted) would do well to start collecting data on teacher mental health.
  5. Finally, Ofsted is consulting on the removal of the ‘outstanding’ exemption on schools. They would do well to consult on the abolishment of grading altogether…

I’ve outlined at a more deeper level, some key reforms needed with Ofsted. We should start with the most obvious…


  1. Fight or Flight? by Ofsted
  2. DfE Workforce, 2018
  3. SchoolDash

2 thoughts on “The Unintended Consequences of Labelling ‘Stuck Schools’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.