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Beyond the shock horror headlines

The brutal fact of the recent London literacy survey was that one in five seven-year-olds couldn't read. But most of them had caught up by 11 and that, says Anne Sofer, should have been the news.

The motto of the Office for Standards in Education is "Improvement through Inspection". After the experiences of the past few weeks, I feel this begs a number of questions.

The first is about the nature of improvement. Does it come from fear or encouragement? And would it not be possible to assess improvement in progress? One of the cruellest aspects of the OFSTED methodology is its snapshot nature: there is no room for an explanation of where you have come from.

In Tower Hamlets we have come from very far back indeed. In 1989 our children, tested at l0, had an average reading score six points below the average for London. In 1995 they were only two points behind an average which had itself slightly improved. This is a 25 per cent increase in six years. Of course it isn't yet good enough. We want to be much better, and I hope the lessons gleaned from the detail of the OFSTED survey, combined with a lot of hard work, will get us there. But at least we are going in the right direction - and quite fast.

One of the reasons for both our original low point and for the rapid increase is the particular nature of our population, which is rather different from that of the other two boroughs in the survey in that more than half our pupils are of recent Bangladeshi origin. Indeed, I suspect this may have skewed the results for the whole survey - it certainly has a lot to do with the "shock horror" headline figure of the one in five non-readers at seven.

Although at the age of seven they are way behind, by the age of 11, as the report finds and our own testing confirms, Bangladeshi pupils have almost caught up with white pupils. And, just to complete the story, by the age of 16 they have overtaken them. The OFSTED report itself (in an obscure paragraph at the back) refers to this progress as "striking". An as-yet unpublished study commissioned by OFSTED calls it "dramatic". How I long to see those words in headlines!

Part of the reason for this improvement is the motivation within the Bangladeshi community itself. But part of it is undoubtedly the considerable investment both we and the Home Office have made through the Section 11 fund to help minority children learn English. The quality of this work was commended in the report. And it is significant to note the two other groups of teachers who come in for particular praise - the special needs teachers and the Reading Recovery teachers. In general these groups were judged to plan more clearly, guide pupils more skilfully and keep better records than mainstream teachers.

I can imagine mainstream teachers asking with some bitterness, "Is that surprising?" What distinguishes these favoured groups is that they receive more training than others and work with individuals or small groups rather than whole classes. They are part of an authority-wide network which is funded outside schools' delegated budgets. By contrast, mainstream teachers' access to in-service training (unless they undertake it in their own time) is now largely in the hands of their head teachers who have to juggle their needs against other priorities within shrinking Grants for Education Support and Training budgets.

And that brings me to the second question begged by the OFSTED report. If it really is "nothing to do with resources" as was claimed, is it mere coincidence that the quality of the best resourced teaching is generally higher than average?

In fact, what the report brings home is an uncomfortable reality. Those children and teachers who find themselves within a specially funded programme are being resourced at a level where progress and improvement is possible. Those outside - most of the teachers and about half the children, including the white children from disadvantaged backgrounds about whom concerns are rightly mounting - are in many cases struggling. It is clear that they also need that kind of systematic training and support.

And that brings me to the final question. Who is to be the agent of this systematic training and support programme? The clear implication of the report - and of subsequent right-wing press comment - is that it should be the education authority. We are being held to account for it.

This is a long way from the ethos of the 1992 Schools Act when LEAs saw their inspection budgets transferred to OFSTED and were told they had no automatic right of entry to schools.

It is also a long way from the notion - and indeed now the reality - that schools should be free to buy their own advice and in-service training from wherever they choose, according to their own preferred ideology. And it sits oddly with the chief inspector's own comments only a few months ago about LEAs spending too much time on advice and support, leading to a "dependency culture".

The Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, has promised us that a White Paper in June will set out "the role local education authorities should take in monitoring and improving standards". This presumably is the White Paper intended to propose further delegation and greater autonomy for schools. It will be interesting to see how it will manage to face in both directions at once.

Anne Sofer is director of education and community services at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

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