What is a coasting school? An answer

June 30, 2015

Nicky Morgan has presented the long awaited definition of coasting schools to the education and adoption bill committee today. Some quick initial thoughts from me on what this looks like. With a couple of caveats, I think this is a good definition and plan of roll out:

The definition

1. Initially there will be a slightly unhelpful focus on floor standards. The initial definition sets higher floor targets of 60% of pupils getting 5 A*-C including English and maths at secondary, and 85% getting Level 4 in English and maths at primary. If schools fall below that *and* have lower than average rates of progress of pupils, then they will become coasting. The difficulty with this approach is that there is a good chance that schools with too low progress but high enough exam scores will escape notification, but lower performing secondary schools initially, but who make the same (or even possibly greater progress), will fall into this category. The latter schools are more likely to be with deprived pupil populations.

2. But this issue disappears after 3 years. The strongest element of the plan is to move to a wholly Progress 8 based definition of progress by 2018. Having a definition of coasting that is aligned with what will be the major form of school accountability generally, and which has been well received by the sector, is a good move.

3. Measuring coasting primary schools will be tricky. The plan from DfE is only to measure headline results at 11, and progress between ages 7 and 11 (or end of Key Stage 1 test to end of Key Stage 2) rather than over the whole of the primary phase – because there is no reliable baseline of pupils attainment when entering school at 5. Moreover, as the Key Stage 1 measurements are teacher assessed, even these are a slightly unreliable measure of pupil performance.

Who will be found coasting?

4. The rolling 3 year measure is smart. A school will need to fall into the definition of coasting for each of three years in a row to be categorised as coasting. This will eliminate a lot of noise and statistical quirks from the system which might have sent schools into a category based on one year’s aberrant data.

5. Schools will have plenty of notice. Relatedly, it will therefore be difficult for a school to claim they will be surprised by falling into the category given a three year data period. I’d expect to see this being (rightly) a major focus of conversation between heads and governors on an annual basis to monitor the school’s performance and for preventive measures to be part of the school’s ongoing annual improvement plans.

Taken together, I wonder if the various organisations claiming that very large numbers of schools will fall into this category of coasting are right. If I had to guess I’d say this may catch fewer than many expect as schools respond to the incentive – in particular, I’d expect to see a lot of ‘hockey stick’ type measures of exam results and pupil progress from schools who are coasting for 2 consecutive years but pull themselves out in the third year.

Action on those found to be coasting

6. This is a school led approach. It’s welcome that much of the narrative today does emphasise that in the first instance it will be the school that comes up with a plan, and will be given external support to do that. If the RSC deems the plan good enough and the school capacity strong, that’s it – the school gets on with implementing it and no further action is taken (assuming results then improve).

7. There are alternatives to Academies. Although Academy status is the big media line, the draft legislation is clear that there are alternatives to schools to help build their capacity. I’ve long written about how this is in some sense a false dichotomy – it is often that by making a school an Academy, particularly in a chain, that you drive that capacity. But if the DfE isn’t going to move to proactively academise all schools and build capacity in an organised way, then a mixed menu of options that focusses on building capacity to drive school improvement is a sensible approach.

8. This definition catches Academies and Good schools. To my bemusement, some of the rhetoric from critics this morning has focussed on the fact that this catches Academies and schools rated Good by Ofsted. (The reason why this bemuses me is because I can’t imagine cheers if the DfE had crafted a definition that focussed only on LA schools deemed poorly performing by regulator). I have no problem at all with under performing and coasting Academies being hauled up, and switched between sponsors if that is what is needed. Similarly, given the vagaries of the Ofsted Good judgement, it would be foolish to somehow exclude all of those schools. The fact that the definition will be based on pupil progress regardless of legal status of school is a strength not a weakness.

Join our mailing list