Challenging schools: Five recurring themes

This article was originally posted in Headteacher Update 13/1/17.


Every school is different and must tackle its challenges in a way to suit its own circumstances. However, Daniel Sobel has seen some generally recurring themes in schools that could be classed as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘challenging’

All schools face common challenges, but that does not mean that the same solutions work for all schools. Much like people, schools have individual characters and function best when they are themselves; any plan for a school must take into account not only the common challenges but this individual character.

In “looking under the bonnet” of now approaching 800 schools, my team and I see patterns emerge, both of success and of failure.

I am sceptical of nationwide initiatives because they often disguise rather than illuminate the unique problems schools face, encouraging the application of “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

Given this, it is with some trepidation that I set out here five common negative cycles that my team and I have identified. These should be taken as very general mechanisms, the specifics of which will vary hugely from context to context. I shall share with you approaches of how to best tackle these large-scale problems in my next article.

Inhibition and timidity

Before addressing the challenges that occur in vulnerable and challenging schools, we must first stop to consider what we really mean by such terms. Our understanding of what constitutes a “vulnerable school” must go deeper than the obvious.

It is more helpful to consider schools which are seemingly unable to change or improve regardless of whatever time and resources they employ. This includes those schools that have been “good” and know that “requires improvement” is coming, yet simply don’t know what to do to deal with this because they feel they have tried everything.

Even schools which are predominantly “good-to-outstanding” may be included if they are plagued by a cohort making only “sig minus” progress that is large enough to threaten the assessment of the whole school.

These schools have something vulnerable about them too – an insidious negativity that becomes infectious, permeates every plan, weakens belief and stymies bravery. Such schools are on the edge of, or already in the grip of, a downwards spiral.

I think the issue of schools feeling inhibited in devising innovative decisions is illustrated well by the following example: I recently visited a school in special measures, where I was asked what the best solution was, in my experience, to narrowing attainment gaps in other schools. I suggested that rather than trying to find a solution that had worked in other schools, they focus on identifying the underlying causes of their own attainment gap and address those.

After much discussion and the creation of a tailored plan of action, staff asked: “Are you sure we are allowed to do this?”
In asking that question they summarised the feeling of strong inhibition and timidity felt by many vulnerable schools.


A number of schools have an undiscovered hornets’ nest of a problem emerging from EYFS in a feeder nursery or internally. One commonality is that the individual needs of students are often not picked up on early enough and there is a generic misapplication of the EYFS framework. Primary school headteachers are frequently not from an EYFS background and, as such, may not spot this problem. Problems begin to fester and grow worse, thus costing a great deal of time, effort and expense later on.


Headteachers are frequently overburdened, with a significant percentage of their time taken up by a small number of very challenging student cases. As I have discussed in some of my previous articles for Headteacher Update, it is notoriously difficult to hire good SENCOs and teaching assistants are often inexperienced and poorly trained when it comes to SEN – and some vulnerable schools even choose to go without SENCOs for extended periods of time. This situation can have a multitude of negative effects.

There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the role of SENCOs. In so many of the schools I have visited, teachers have assumed that SENCOs deal exclusively with SEN students, and SENCOs are often treated as “remedial” teachers.

As a result of these attitudes, many vulnerable schools have SENCOs who are still teaching in the “old style”, hiding in their room rather than working on the front line, supporting their teaching colleagues. In this situation we see the following negative downwards spiral of exclusion (in the name of inclusion!) emerge:

  • SENCOs are alienated from other teaching staff and focus on deploying interventions.
  • As a result of this lack of support, differentiation and personalised learning in classes is lacking.
  • This lack of class-based work leads to SEN students not doing as well as they could, which means they are perceived to need even more remedial support.
  • This leads us back to the situation where SENCOs are so busy deploying additional support that they are not able to support their colleagues.


The process of schools trying to fit the round peg of a “universal solution” into the square hole of their unique problems is one I see frequently. The schools I have worked with often do not know whether or not they are making progress in the area of SEN because they have no means of properly measuring or monitoring their interventions.

Furthermore, lack of more imaginative or strategic interventions leads to a waste of resources and the excessive use of staff. Far too many interventions end up having a long-term negative, rather than the intended positive, impact on students because they are based on exclusionary practice, which is not reflective of the main class learning-environment.

With this style of intervention, it becomes impossible to re-integrate the child into the main class because they develop a reliance on being withdrawn from their cohort. If this style of intervention is allowed to dominate, a vicious cycle can develop:

  • The student is removed for extra support and taught in a separate room; crucially the intervention is often (due to lack of SENCO integration) based around non-curriculum activities.
  • The child may then make progress in this exclusive environment but when they return to the main class they find that they lack the confidence to participate due to the fact that they are behind on the curriculum and not accustomed to learning in the main class environment.
  • It is then decided that the child cannot thrive in the main class and so they are removed again and the cycle continues.

What makes this situation worse is that SENCOs are often unable to navigate the challenging procedures that need to be followed to access external support. As such, applications for support from vulnerable schools are frequently refused.

Given this, headteachers often believe that external help is simply impossible to access. This scenario often leads to the last-gasp measure of hiring yet more teaching assistants to try and combat the problem. This is when the teaching assistant-funding downward spiral begins.

There is one school where I found 35 teaching assistants and I calculated that they needed just 15. The first thing that the head had told me is that the school was in massive debt. We totted up the savings and it came to about £400,000. The school’s entirely blue RaiseOnline data for their SEN was mainly impeded by their teaching assistants getting in the way of learning. This phenomenon also leads to increased exclusions and out of control cases.

It is strange to consider this problem as a circle of ideas that fit together when this vicious cycle causes so much stress in staff, parents and of course children. Many of the most challenging cases (which we know end up as NEET and worse later down the line) can be dealt with by breaking this very simple negative cycle.

The local community

Communities can be challenging, not just for socio-economic reasons, but complacency and lack of aspiration can prove equally corrosive to schools. A common theme we have noticed is that dealing with the effect of social issues in an educational silo is doomed to failure because you cannot separate the student from the community.

Schools which deal with a challenging community from an educational silo frequently become isolated, and this inevitably has a further negative impact on challenging behaviour and poor engagement by hard-to-reach parents.

Yet this is not the only way in which community relations can affect schools; I have also noticed a theme, especially in the more rural schools (of which there are 5,000 in England) where the complacency of the local community colludes with the school to perpetuate a lack of aspiration and general malaise.

These “comfy schools” often have no zest for academic aspiration because they take the attitude that no-one is complaining and “this is the way we have always done it” – a phrase which eliminates any chance of change.


If it were up to me, when heads take on their first school they would be made aware of these common patterns and be told to look out for them. The real problem is being isolated, unaware and unsure of where to look. Every company is trying to sell them a quick-fix solution and somehow, their nearest outstanding school simply doesn’t understand the quagmire because they weren’t in it themselves and they can’t replicate another school’s practices. Sadly there are no common fixes. All of these problems must be dealt with from the unique vantage point of the school.

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