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Research report

The rapid improvement of government schools in England

Tony McAleavy and Anna Riggall

This study investigates the experience of an unusually interesting group of government-funded primary and secondary schools in England.

There are about 20,000 government-funded primary and secondary schools in England. They are all subject to inspection by the national schools inspectorate for England known as Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills). According to Ofsted a very small proportion of the government schools have recently improved dramatically from a previous low baseline. Ofsted uses a 4 point scale to categorise school quality. Using Ofsted data we calculated that there were 360 schools that, in the previous two years or less, had moved from being graded by Ofsted as ‘inadequate’ (category 4) to being graded as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ (category 2 or 1, respectively).

The inspectors considered that these schools had been transformed for the better in a relatively short period of time. Ofsted is widely known for the robustness of its methods and teachers in England consider that Ofsted inspectors are difficult to please. So it is a great achievement when a school categorised as inadequate is, within two years, officially designated as good or outstanding.

We wanted to know more about what had happened in these schools. We contacted them and about 100 agreed to take part in our research through a survey and follow-up interviews. The aim of this study was to engage with the headteachers of these schools in order to better understand their view of the causes of transformation in the educational performance of their schools and to ascertain how they think improvements had taken place.

This report has a significance beyond England because policymakers all over the world are wrestling with the problem of how to improve underperforming government-funded schools. We hope the findings will provide both practical insights and inspirations for anyone involved in the business of bringing about rapid school improvement.