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Chalk up the gains

Teaching quality is still rising but there are yet more signs that staff shortages are impeding progress, says John Howson

Teaching standards still appear to be improving in most secondary subjects - but there are no grounds for complacency.

Last month's report from England's chief inspector of schools confirms that only a small minority of schools are offering unsatisfactory or poor lessons in national curriculum subjects.

However, teachers of English, geography and PE have been unable to improve on their high performance in 19992000. And inspectors saw some deterioration in the RE teaching at key stage 4. Only 5 per cent of schools offered unsatisfactory RE lessons in 19992000 but that rose to 8 per cent during 20001.

The table (right) also suggests that standards in some subjects were higher in 19989 than they were in 20001. Subjects with increasing numbers of unsatisfactory lessons were: (KS3) English and maths; (KS3 and 4) RE, languages and the sciences; (KS4) geography. With the exception of English, these subjects suffer teacher shortages. But, as there are no recent official figures on the number of staff who teach outside their specialist field, it is difficult to gauge whether this is affecting the quality of teaching.

On a more positive note, the chief inspector also points to an improvement in information technology teaching, which used to be a problem area, particularly at KS4. This may reflect the growing number of new recruits as well as considerable investment in training of existing staff. Better hardware, and more familiarity with the curriculum may also have helped.

However, one of the less heartening conclusions to be drawn from these figures is that there is more unsatisfactory teaching at KS3 than KS4. This discrepancy should be addressed. The types of schools where the worst teaching is found must also be identified so funds and attention can be properly targeted.

John Howson is managing director of Education Data Surveys and a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University. Email:

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