Failing could be diagnosed and rescued long before the Office for Standards in Education gets involved, new research suggests.
Professor Kathryn Riley of the Roehampton Institute in London has collected a series of cases of primary and secondary schools under special measures and identified a pattern of characteristic symptoms, separate from the question of poor teaching.
Kathryn Riley says that while she started her research without any preconceptions of what she was likely to find, as time went on "it became more political; there are aspects of Government policy to be tackled if these problems are not to go on recurring in the future; namely, competition between schools, selection, school governance and school buildings".
Her research, which will be published in January, also suggests that while the OFSTED inspection can act to pull the school back from the brink, it is the quality of the post-inspection support provided by the local authority that is the key to getting the school off the critical list.
The study schools were asked to describe their social context and staff situation, their preparation for OFSTED, what the inspectors actually said, what the action plan proposed, and what they would have done with the benefit of hindsight.
Professor Riley, who gave delegates at a recent conference in the London borough of Haringey a foretaste of her research, said that the most striking symptom of failing schools was that the teachers felt isolated. They were "inward-looking", had little contact with colleagues in other schools and lacked the professional links which would help them develop their thinking and refresh their methods.
All the case study schools had staffing difficulties; many of them had a chronic problem with long-term staff sickness and high numbers of supply staff. Many of them had problems at the top, with weak heads, or recently-appointed heads struggling to tackle a mountainous legacy of mismanagement. At one primary school, the head had good experience in turning round failing schools, but was meeting concerted resistance from a small but vociferous group of parents who frustrated his efforts by giving damaging interviews to the local press.
At the other end of the scale, some schools had an ageing, static staff who had all been in the same school for years. These people resisted change and would refuse to accept the inspection report.
Rotten buildings were mentioned by the majority of the schools, suggesting that the school environment has a much greater effect on morale and standards than previously supposed. Typical was one inner-city primary built 25 years ago with "sprawling buildings, multiple entrances and many angles and corners" making it easy prey for vandals. Maintenance of the building was "a constant issue". The flat roof leaked in many places, there was no money for refurbishment and "toilet areas were a particular concern".
The schools were also likely to be serving areas of great poverty, though this was not inevitable. The secondary schools in the case study were frequently "creamed off" by neighbouring selective grammars or grant-maintained schools, and many of them had recently been merged with other schools. Both these factors were present at The Ridings school in Halifax.
Most of the schools mentioned problems with the governing body, with confusion about their role and difficulties in recruiting people willing to give up their time.
Significantly, Professor Riley found that far from galvanising the school into action, the OFSTED report paralysed the staff for quite a long period. Many schools talked about a "grieving period" after the shock of hearing that they were under special measures. Many schools said they had been aware of the problems and had started working hard to tackle them, so the "failing" label felt like a slap in the face. In particular, it was the condemnation of the whole school as failing, which upset teachers. Good teachers became depressed, taking responsibility for the failure, while the weak blamed everybody and everything but themselves.
Interestingly, schools are reporting that the pupils often blame themselves for the school's failure, assuming that it is because "we are bad kids". Pupils suffer taunting from pupils at rival schools and staff fear that the stigma of working in a failing school will prevent them getting another job.
It was determined and sensitive support from the local authority - money, advice, and a personal interest taken in the school by the director of education - that led the school to convalesce, says Professor Riley. The lesson from all this, she says, is that the Government must tackle the ambivalence about the role of the local authorities, limiting their power with one hand while blaming them for failing schools on the other. "Local authorities need to be given the resources and teeth to intervene before things go wrong," she says. The Government must also appreciate the impact of the competitive climate it has created, both in creating winners and losers and in isolating schools from each other, she adds.
Professor Kathryn Riley's research will be published in January, together with a report on the conference "From Intensive Care to Recovery", which took place recently under the auspices of the London borough of Haringey.
TEN SIGNS THAT YOUR SCHOOL MAY BE ON THE SLIDE
* Your school and your teachers are isolated, both physically and mentally. Teachers are inward-looking and are rarely able to discuss practice and problems. Few staff have done in-service training recently.
* The staff situation is either unstable (high turnover, several vacant posts and temporary contracts) or stagnant (ageing staff, lacking in ambition, resistant to change). There are high levels of sickness.
* Leadership of your school is shaky - the headteacher is off on extended sick leave or there have been frequent changes of head recently, or the post is still vacant.
* Relationships with the governing body are difficult.
* The state of the building is very poor and deteriorating. Facilities for both staff and children are squalid.
* The school serves an area of high social deprivation.
* You face competition for pupils from local grammar schools and GM schools.
* You have recently been reorganised - merged with another school, or changed from middle to primary, etc.
* There is no tradition in your school of regularly reviewing and monitoring strengths and weaknesses.
* Staff are preoccupied with pupils' behaviour and talk more about keeping order than the subject of their lessons.