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The chief inspector's `misleading picture'

The chief inspector of schools in England is being accused by a former senior HMI of manipulating the evidence collected on schools in order to back up his privately-held views on the parlous state of primary education.

According to Colin Richards, who left his post as senior advisor for primary education at the Office for Standards in Education at the end of last month, the latest snapshot of the state of the education service was arrived at by a misleading use of data.

The central charge from Mr Richards is that in drawing together the judgments of inspectors on their visits to schools, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, overstated the final picture by counting the neutral middle grade as a negative.

By misinterpreting that grading, Mr Woodhead managed to dramatically change the analysis of the state of primary schools (and presumably secondary schools). This year's annual report on schools said about half of primary schools require improvement. Had Mr Woodhead counted the middle grade as denoting satisfactory, he would have reported that around 90 per cent of primary schools are at least satisfactory.

The reasoning behind Mr Woodhead's use of data is explained in an annexe to his report. It says: "The mid-point on the OFSTED seven-point scale is used to record that, in the inspection team's view, neither strengths nor weaknesses are dominant. Such neutrally judged features of a school may still promote sound achievement, but inspectors' judgments and the weaknesses identified in the reports on individual schools show them to be, nevertheless, amenable to improvement. In this report, therefore, schools judged neutrally are included in the number requiring improvement."

It adds that in any of the 80 features examined as many as 40 per cent of the schools can fall into the middle ground. The complaint from Mr Richards is that the report does not explain that when inspectors registered a feature of a school as grade 4, they were making a neutral, not an unfavourable, judgment.

The practice of classing the middle grade as unsatisfactory does not feature in the previous year's report. In that year the middle grade ratings were taken to be neutral.

Mr Richards claims a decision was taken within OFSTED during the processing of this year's report to treat the middle point of the seven-point scale as negative. That decision gave weight to the report's finding that more than half of primary schools are in need of improvement.

The view taken by Mr Richards is that Mr Woodhead was willing to interpret the evidence in such a way as to give a "misleading picture" because he wanted to promote a return to basics in primary classes.

The system for reporting on schools has been changed. The next annual report is likely to be based on a middle grade that has now been clearly designated as a positive judgment.

If this did happen, OFSTED would then be in a position to demonstrate a dramatic improvement in standards next time round. And the next annual report could appear just before the next election.

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