Are inspectors' judgments that some good schools are complacent founded on reliable data? Phil Revell reports
Are you coasting? Drifting along, buoyed up by a history of good exam results? According to the Office for Standards in Education, 120 schools in England have fallen victim to such complacency. They are the first to be put in the "underachieving" category introduced last year.
Nationally, 2 per cent of schools inspected were designated as underachieving, which suggests that nearly 500 may have the new label slapped on them.
The change was introduced in the inspection reforms in January 2000 and can be traced to a speech by the then chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, in which he spoke about "schools in leafy suburbs" whose pupils were not achieving their full potential.
According to OFSTED, the designation covers "schools whose pupils are not reaching the level of attainment that might be expected; results are lower than those for similar schools". This year's chief inspector's report suggested that weaknesses in leadership and teaching were most likely to cause these shortcomings. But schools stuck with the label do not see it that way.
"The whole thing is a statistical fudge," said one head. "To brand us as an underachieving school on the basis of the evidence they quoted is ridiculous."
The OFSTED Framework for Inspection says an inspector's judgment should be based on performance data alongside judgments about the effectiveness of the school and improvements made since the last inspection. The data focus on a school's test results compared with schools in similar contexts.
"For the majority of schools the ... comparison will be made on Qualifications and Curriculum Authority free school meal bandings," says the framework. But it is highly questionable whether schools can be properly compared on this basis.
Research commissioned by OFSTED from Professor Harvey Goldstein of London University's Institute of Education in 1998 showed that free meals bandings are "inadequate and likely to produce misleading comparisons among schools". Yet performance assessment data, the comparisons published annually by OFSTED to allow schools to compare themselves with similar schools, are still using free meals bandings as a key indicator.
Professor Goldstein said that although his report had been welcomed by OFSTED, it appeared to have ignored his findings.
Dr Janet Dobson of the migration research unit at University College in London has highlighted the significance of another factor that the performance and assessment (PANDA) bandings do not allow for - pupils who change schools frequently.
In inner-city areas, classes can change from week to week. Birmingham has an average mobility rate of 21 per cent - the proportion of children who start or leave schools other than at the normal transfer times. Yet actual rates for individual schools can be much higher. In a class of 30 pupils, 27 could have moved in or out that year.
Birmingham has two schools in the "underachieving" category, but planning and research adviser John Hill is concerned about the statistical judgments that placed them there. Like many other authorities Birmingham has its own measures of school achievement and they suggest that PANDA analysis gives an inaccurate picture of onein four schools. Pupil mobility and the number of children with English as a second language are the main influences that are not fully taken into account.
Birmingham chief adviser Mick Waters identifies another weakness with OFSTED benchmarking data. "PANDA comparisons are based on the school's postcode area," he said. "And for some schools that's not necessarily the catchment area."
Grammar schools in run-down urban areas can draw their intake from leafy suburbs miles out of the city. The new "underachieving" category is highlighting such problems because it is being applied to schools that would never have been in danger of falling into the "serious weaknesses" or "special measures" categories.
And in some ways the new category is a bigger issue for heads. Schools with serious weaknesses or in special measures can escape the label after follow-up visits by OFSTED and HM inspectors.
In exceptional cases, the school can be given a clean bill of health within 18 months. But the "underachieving" label can only be removed by a full Section 10 inspection, so schools can be stuck with the underachieving tag for up to four years.
"There were problems," admits one head of an underachieving school. "But the report could have identified them as key issues for us to address and we would have accepted that. Instead the whole school, including some very successful teaching areas, has been stamped with the same tag. It's ludicrous."
What OFSTED's labels mean
* A school requires special measures if it is judged to be failing to provide an acceptable standard of education.
* Governors must draw up an action plan to address key issues identified by inspectors. The school must aim to be removed from special measures within two years.
* The local authority must assess the school's ability to implement its action plan and identify potential options - which may include closure.
* HM inspectors then monitor the school and it is removed from special measures when they say its education standards are acceptable.
* In 1999-2000, 230 schools were put into special measures; 169 primary, 37 secondary and 24 special schools. A further 238 were removed from the category.
* OFSTED applies this label to schools that have significant weaknesses in one or more areas, despite generally offering an acceptable standard of education.
* An action plan must be drawn up and heads and governors have just one year to effect improvements. If a school has not made sufficient progress, it may be placed in special measures.
* About 6 per cent schools inspected in 1999-2000 were said to have serious weaknesses.
* All schools declared underachieving in the spring and summer of last year will be visited by inspectors. In future, OFSTED will monitor the progress of up to 75 per cent of the underachieving schools. The remaining 25 per cent will be unable to remove the label until they "pass" a full inspection - which can be brought forward if the school is confident that it has overcome its problems.l This year more than pound;290 million of Standards Fund cash is available to schools and LEAs. Schools in the three "failing" categories are encouraged to bid for funding to support their action plan.