The benefit of being mainstream is that you’re just like everyone else. And, as such, there are plenty of resources and support structures available to you in order to improve and succeed. The disadvantage of being mainstream is that you’re just like everyone else. You’re just another drop in a vast ocean of the same. Which leaves you with very little wiggle room for individualism. Conversely, if you’re not mainstream you benefit from the freedom to choose your own destiny but struggle to find the support you need in order to make your vision a success.
Specialist schools are not mainstream. Non-association independent schools are not mainstream. They’re niche. Serving a very particular demographic. In their own way. With their own standards and frameworks. Their own problems. And, regrettably, only limited support. At least, nowhere near the amount of support available to mainstream schools.
It’s the catch-22. The price you pay for your freedoms.
But it shouldn’t be.
And it doesn’t have to be.
Non-association independent schools need support. We just need to rethink what that support looks like. What form that support takes. And where that support comes from.
What Government Support Is Available For Schools?
Allow me to paint a picture. Be warned, though. It may just shock and appal you.
Your school ‘Requires Improvement’. So, in order to help you out, the Government offers you one of the following support packages:
If your school has 1 “requires improvement” judgment you will get up to 3 days’ support and advice from a national leader of education (NLE) or equivalent to help your leadership team identify and implement improvements within its school.
If your school has 2 consecutive “requires improvement” judgments or it is newly opened and it receives a “requires improvement” judgment during its first inspection you will get up to 3 days’ support from an NLE (or equivalent) to help your leadership team to identify and implement improvements within its school and up to £16,000 to address the needs identified by the NLE
If your school currently has a “requires improvement” judgment and has not been rated above this grade since 2005 across a minimum of 4 inspections you will get up to 3 days’ support from an NLE (or equivalent) to help your leadership team to identify and implement improvements within its school and up to £24,000 to address the needs identified by the NLE (source)
Except, if you’re a non-association independent school in need of support you get none of that.
This free school improvement support from the Government is available for mainstream schools only.
So, there. Good luck to you.
Recovery Time is Short
It gets worse. When independent schools inspected by Ofsted do not do well during inspection, they have a relatively shorter time to recover than their mainstream counterparts.
Effectively, when Independent Schools get an Ofsted Grade 3 or 4, it is almost certainly because they did not meet the requirements of the Independent School Standards.
The DfE regulates and enforces compliance with the standards. It’s the only condition of registration as an independent school. Therefore the standards are the benchmark for success.
When schools get Ofsted Grades 3 or 4 and they do not meet the Independent School Standards, the DfE usually asks for an action plan. They require schools to demonstrate how they will address the standards they are failing to meet. This is then usually followed by a progress monitoring inspection from Ofsted, once again to check compliance.
If the school cannot demonstrate that they have addressed the standards, the cycle usually repeats itself — action plan, then progress monitoring inspection.
The number of repetitions of the cycle depends on the standards that need to be addressed. More weight is placed on the standards that affect the safeguarding and welfare of pupils.
If a school continues to fail to demonstrate compliance, the DfE can then move on to Enforcement Actions, the ultimate of which is revoking the school’s registration.
Based on my analysis of inspection patterns, it can take as little as 1 year to move from failing to meet the standards during an Inspection, to Enforcement Action.
In contrast, within the mainstream arena, schools can get consistently weak inspection outcomes for as long as13 years and still remain open - as evidenced by the existence of “stuck schools”. Even bullet point 3 above shows that it is possible for schools currently ranked “requires improvement” who have not received a higher grade since 2005 across a minimum of 4 inspections remain open and eligible for extensive support from the government.
It’s tough being a non-association independent school in need of support.
And it gets tougher.
So Much to Do, So Little Time
By and large, non-association independent schools tend to have small leadership teams. These are usually comprised of a senior leadership team with no middle leadership. For this reason, leaders end up fulfilling multiple roles, wearing many hats, and as a result, finding themselves buried in work, only focusing on the day-to-day operations of the school.
Consequently, improvement actions become a reaction to poor inspection outcomes. Simply because school leaders just don’t have time to develop and implement improvement systems, and keep up with changes that have an impact on their provision.
A provision which is essential. And more than worthy of ongoing support.
Non-association independent schools tend to take care of pupils with special educational needs; social, emotional and mental health needs; challenging behaviour; complex disabilities; sensory needs. These are pupils who do not manage to cope in a mainstream environment. In short, these are some of the most vulnerable young people in society, in desperate need of a safe and secure place where they can thrive as individuals.
Supporting non-association independent schools maintains provision for these vulnerable pupils.
Which is why I choose to work as a School Improvement Partner for non-association independent schools. Because I believe everyone deserves a chance at a good education regardless of background or circumstances. Because it is often those most in need that struggle to find the support to improve their situation.
Not everyone is mainstream.
That’s what makes us interesting and diverse.
And with the right approach, independent schools won’t suffer as a result.