One word that could kill a Whitehall initiative

27th March 2009 at 00:00
It began when Ed Balls put the label 'coasting' on those schools his department thought could do a lot better. Now the renamed Gaining Ground programme is under threat as local authorities refuse to accept the tag - even though it would mean extra cash

A crass political remark has led to angry schools and councils refusing to take part in a government programme to boost schools dubbed as "coasting".

The Government has promised "up to" Pounds 40 million. But several local authorities have been offered just Pounds 10,000 per school per year for two years, plus four school improvement partners days. For some, this is not enough to induce them to risk their school's reputation by taking part in the Gaining Ground initiative.

This nervousness follows the National Challenge debacle when "failing" schools were named and shamed. Now local authorities do not want to be tainted by another government label.

Gaining Ground was launched last November to help boost schools where pupils were not performing as well as they could. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, said at the time: "Coasting schools could and should be doing better. They are schools that get results which can look acceptable or even good, but which are not fulfilling the potential of their pupils. Helping these schools to improve is not just about money though; it's about shining a spotlight on the issue of coasting, raising ambitions, and then giving schools the support they need."

Critics say the programme is aimed more at making headlines than a genuine wish to improve schools. One local authority says a list of "solutions" has already been drawn up - such as extra school improvement partners days, study support for pupils, and training in assessment for learning for teachers - rather than consulting schools.

These may be sensible suggestions, but schools say they resent the Government dangling the promise of money to help pupils only if they agree to be labelled as "coasting". Such fears were justified this week when The Sunday Telegraph reported that "more than 100,000 children languish in 'coasting' schools".

The TES survey has revealed 66 authorities, almost half of the total of 149, have not identified any schools that will take part. There are 93 schools identified in 30 authorities so far, and a further 14 have identified at least one school but so far have not released more details - some for fear of harming the schools' reputations. There are 3,343 secondary schools in England.

An analysis of the 49 schools whose names have been given to The TES shows that 38 have satisfactory Ofsted judgments and two are rated inadequate. But eight are rated as good and one is outstanding.

The head of the outstanding school said: "We're interested in being a higher-achieving school. We work on the basis that you can always improve. This might be a way to help us continue to improve. We see it as an opportunity. 'Coasting' is a misleading term."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "School-to-school support is well known as the way to help pupils perform better, and it is already being put into action through activities such as the National Leaders of Education. It can and does take place without unnecessary labelling of schools, which is bound to cause undeserved some reputational damage, as happened with the National Challenge.

"This is about getting headlines - the politics of it. They want to be seen to be doing something about schools which are underperforming."

It is now believed the Department for Children, Schools and Families is stepping back from "shining a spotlight on the issue of coasting".

Kirklees authority revealed that: "The DCSF have changed their position since November following the furore surrounding the naming and shaming of National Challenge schools. They have dropped the 'coasting' school tag and they will not have a list of schools, simply the number of schools per local authority."

The National Challenge scheme was launched last year, bringing the threat of closure to 638 schools (now 440) where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieved the GCSE benchmark of 30 per cent of pupils gaining five top grades.

While ministers insisted they had not published a list of the National Challenge schools, or used the word "failing", the press did. And the headteachers affected by this were furious.

The episode made local authorities sensitive and they have now been similarly rankled by the word "coasting". Barking and Dagenham, a borough in north-east London, said: "There is no DCSF 'list' of coasting schools for us to refer to. An email was sent out from National Strategies HQ implying that the DCSF had a list. This has subsequently been retracted and denied. It was the implication that such a list existed that prompted widespread press interest in which schools might be on it.

"In the absence of any DCSF list (as opposed to its list of National Challenge schools) there is no obligation on the local authority to classify any of its schools as 'coasting' and we have not done so."

Sheffield local authority agreed. "As part of our general responsibilities, we constantly work with all schools and provide very active support and encouragement to all of them. We don't use negative and judgmental terms, such as coasting, in our discussions with schools."

Schools that could potentially take part in the initiative can be identified on a number of criteria, including low pupil progress, below-average contextual value added scores, stalled exam results, poor Ofsted reports, complacent leadership and poor-quality subject leaders.

But Mr Dunford pointed out that around half the schools in the country could be identified on one criteria or another.

One local authority manager told The TES that schools felt they would be damned if they took part and damned if they didn't.

"Schools could always use extra money. If it is well deployed, they can use it to make rapid progress. But I don't know how it will play in the community. If a school sees this as an opportunity to make a bit of targeted intervention in a particular area then that's fine. People might even be upset if their school didn't get the help. If they don't take the money, it's why not? But if they do take it, then people will ask why?"


Sharon Watt, head of City of Portsmouth Girls' School, has signed up to Gaining Ground in principle. The school meets two of the criteria for the scheme - its contextual value added score is below 1,000 and its maths results are low.

The school, which Ofsted rated as good, is also oversubscribed. "I don't feel strongly aggrieved," she said, "although we did make jokes that we were not coasting but coastal. Coasting is an emotive idea, which isn't true. I'm not going to refuse Pounds 10,000 for maths under the label Gaining Ground, but I'm not accepting the label of coasting."


Schools are earmarked for Gaining Ground if pupils start with good results and then lose momentum. There are 10 indicators Whitehall is using to classify such schools:

1. They hit the GCSE benchmark but pupils' progress from KS2 to KS4 is unimpressive.

2. Many pupils start in line with national expectations but fail to achieve potential.

3. Little or no improvement in the school's progression rates over several years.

4. Ofsted ratings are disappointing given the school's intake and potential.

5. Weak assessment for learning.

6. Strong focus on threshold targets, but progression targets have a lower priority.

7. Complacent leadership, uninspiring subject leaders in English and maths.

8. Significant variation between pupil groups - for example, those on free school meals.

9. Contextual value-added score is significantly below average.

10. School has not implemented the workforce remodelling agreement.

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