'Failing' schools must improve more quickly
It can be one of the most traumatic episodes in a school's history and piles the pressure on both heads and staff.
Now Ofsted is trialling an approach that could make the process of being in special measures, or having a notice to improve, even more demanding. From January, primaries and secondaries will be expected to throw off their inadequate rating more quickly - and they will also have to make more rapid improvements.
Schools with a notice to improve will be inspected three months after being put in this category and will be re-inspected within a further six months. If the school does not improve, it will be placed in special measures. Currently, schools receive a monitoring inspection six to eight months after their previous full inspection and are re-inspected after 12 to 16 months. For those placed in special measures, the process will be similarly accelerated.
The aim is for this strategy to bring schools out of a "category" earlier, but school leaders have warned that the reforms could also lead to extra demands being made of them.
Ofsted informed schools earlier this year that the pace of improvement is often "too slow" and the reforms will "increase expectations of the speed of recovery for schools requiring special measures".
The proposals, which can be found in the new inspection framework, will also result in local authorities being expected to take "more vigorous action" if a school is "improving only slowly".
"A substantial number of schools are in special measures for up to two years or more before they are removed," the document warns. "In some schools, the pace of improvement is too slow and this is not acceptable for the pupils who attend such schools."
Unsurprisingly, there are many who are worried about how this strategy could manifest itself in schools. Jan Webber, an inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the changes could put more pressure on headteachers.
"If the first monitoring visit is a chance for the inspector and headteacher to come up with a joint plan, then that will be helpful. If the inspector expects to see lots of improvement, that may be more difficult for the school," she said. "Under the old framework, schools had time to take action before the first monitoring visit and this meant they could demonstrate they had made progress."
Matt Britt, a head who this year led controversy-beset Canonbury Primary in north London out of special measures after an improvement process lasting a year, said heads need time to introduce changes.
"Restructuring can be a long process to go through and schools might not have completed all the restructuring needed by the time the inspector comes for the first monitoring visit," he said.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, also worries that schools will struggle to show rapid improvements. "In some areas, headteachers will find it hard to recruit new teachers, so it will be more difficult for them to demonstrate progress early on," he said. "The speed of the improvement process has got nothing to do with the speed of inspection; what affects it is the strength of leadership."
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the ASCL, warned that headteachers will need extensive support to be able to improve quickly.
"Being placed in a category is an extremely significant incident in the life of a school, and headteachers will want to move out of that category as soon as possible. So if Ofsted want the process to be quicker that will be welcomed cautiously by headteachers," he said. "But we are also very clear that the new framework is going to be even more demanding - the bar has been raised."
Ofsted insists schools will welcome the chance to get out of special measures quickly. Mr Britt, who now wants to move to an outstanding rating, agrees.
"You've got to start the ball rolling from square one and, as long as there's still the chance to talk through the process in some depth, I think this is a good idea," he said.
HOW THEY FARE All schools, England - September 2010-April 2011 Outstanding 10% Good 44% Satisfactory 39% Inadequate 6%.
All schools, England - September 2010-April 2011