'The threat of being labelled "coasting" could lead to more teaching to the test and short-term strategies'

Russell Hobby

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I'm sat in greenhouse conditions in Portcullis House waiting to give evidence to the Scrutiny Committee for the Education and Adoption Bill, which sets out the govenment's approach to "coasting" schools. What do I say? It's not like the government shouldn't set standards. We really don't want schools to coast and sometimes you need to do something dramatic. 

Perhaps the real question is whether the proposed legislation will actually raise standards. Celebrated academic John Hattie published a paper last week called The Politics of Distraction. In it, he criticises structural changes as easy and glamorous distractions from the real business of raising standards, which is what happens inside the classroom. Yet, here we are facing more structural change. It is a well-worn path. 

My first concern is that I am not sure this new government definition captures what we would really describe as 'coasting' schools. It allows for the possibility of a secondary school with a high-attaining intake to escape the definition, despite adding little value. Other schools doing good work in challenging circumstances will be threatened. 

My second concern is with the added pressure. A little pressure is a good thing, but we are close to meltdown now. The new definition applies retrospective measures of performance. It is hard enough encouraging people to become heads when they can't predict what's coming next. Now we're even at the point where they can't predict what's already happened. 

Too much pressure results in narrow curricula, teaching to the test, short-term boosts and lower confidence. These are not the ingredients of greatness. 

I also worry about capacity. It is not just a matter of replacing the heads of coasting schools, but whether we have enough people to coach, support, partner and even sponsor those schools as well.

I am relieved on at least one count though. Forced academisation is not the default response – probably because of those capacity issues mentioned above. I welcome this, but I wonder what people will have to demonstrate to stave it off. The bill also dramatically reduces checks and balances, consultation and process, leaving a lot at the discretion of the education secretary's commissioners. I know they are in a hurry, but sometimes more haste means less speed. 

One other consolation: at the moment, there are no coasting schools; there will be none until autumn 2016. Lots of people will be trying to point fingers and apply pressure, but no school is yet designated and every school has a chance to make a difference between now and then. Let's make sure they have not only space, but support, resources and encouragement. 

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Russell Hobby

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