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'The new education secretary needs to stop seeing "outstanding" schools and start visiting those judged "coasting"'

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Perhaps, then, Damian Hinds can tell us why so many 'coasting' schools are judged to be ‘good’ by Ofsted. 

Recently I suggested that any new education secretary should spend at least a week working in school to get a sense of what things are really like on the ground.

While I believe he has yet to take me up on my suggestion, I’ve noticed that the Department for Education Twitter feed is currently full of photos of Damian Hinds visiting schools around the country. This is good to see. Getting out of Westminster and talking with pupils, teachers and leaders is the right thing to do – and the best way to learn about the issues schools are currently facing.

I hope that at some point in the future he does consider more than just a fleeting visit, but in the meantime, there is something else I’d like to suggest.

I’ve noticed that when it comes to these sorts of ministerial visits, they tend to take place at what the government deems to be "high-performing schools" – those with the "outstanding" badge, or the ones with the exceptional exam results.

 There is nothing wrong with this. It’s absolutely right that the secretary of state should celebrate success and, of course, there is much to be learned from these high performers. It would be foolhardy for the person running the DfE not to try and understand the secret of success in these schools.

However, I would suggest that visits to schools sitting at the other end of the accountability spectrum could be just as useful, perhaps even more so.

Inside 'coasting' schools

As a starting point, Damian Hinds might like to ask his civil servants for a list of the schools the government currently defines as "coasting" and arrange to spend time in as many of these as his diary allows.

I have a feeling that he might be a little surprised with what he finds on these visits. The kind of labels given to such schools are so disparaging that it’s easy for someone who has never spent time in one to make all sorts of assumptions about what life must be like inside them.

I suspect that in the vast majority of "coasting" schools he visits, he would be impressed by the dedication of the staff, the ambition of the leadership team and the learning he sees the children engaged in.

I am confident that he would see many positive aspects that belie the simplistic and derogatory label these schools have been given. In fact, he might start to wonder just how different this ‘coasting’ school appears to be from the apparently ‘non-coasting’ school he visited last week.  

Disadvantaged areas

He might also start to notice how many of these schools are based in disadvantaged areas and are dealing with a range of additional challenges that makes their job just that little bit tougher. He would perhaps begin to question whether this measure is truly identifying "complacent" schools in the way his predecessor suggested it would.

If nothing else, it would surely highlight one of the biggest absurdities in our current accountability system, as an unfortunate civil servant is forced to try to explain to him how a significant proportion of the coasting schools he has visited have also been told by Ofsted in recent years that they are "good".       

At the very least I hope these visits make our new education secretary question how fair, accurate and helpful these labels are – and whether or not, in many cases, they might be doing more harm than good. 

This article was written by James Bowen, director of NAHT Edge and was first published in TES on 20 February 2018. 
First published 22 February 2018