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Gloom is just a media myth

David Henderson reports from the national conference on the reform programme for schools

Most of the 70,000 pupils, 50,000 parents and 12,500 teachers interviewed by inspectors in recent years are overwhelmingly supportive of what goes on in schools, the country's top inspector told a national conference last week.

Nearly all teachers - 95 per cent in primary and 98 per cent in secondary - also told inspectors they liked working in their schools, confounding critics who repeatedly talk about a breakdown in discipline.

Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector, urged his teacher audience not to be influenced by the negativity of media reports on school inspections.

Reports by the HMIE were largely about "affirmation" of the good work in schools, but that did not make the headlines.

One of the most satisfying tasks of inspectors was to tell teachers and schools - "often for the first time" - that they were doing a good job for their children.

In a robust performance at the Scottish Executive-led conference on the Ambitious, Excellent Schools agenda, Mr Donaldson said interviews with pupils, parents and teachers confirmed the strength of the current system.

"The overwhelming evidence we get from that is of very high levels of confidence from all of these key stakeholder groups in the school they are attending. It appears that parents believe, at one and the same time, that the school their children go to is doing a good job but there's something wrong with the education system more generally," he said.

International comparisons further confirmed the strengths of the system, with Scotland consistently coming out in the top third of performers.

"People come to Scotland from all over the world because they believe we are doing a good job. It is based on hard-nosed understanding of where we are just now," the senior chief said.

Schools' willingness to embrace self-evaluation was one aspect that impressed them.

Mr Donaldson said education was particularly strong in pre-school and the early years of primary and upper secondary, but weaker in upper primary and the early years of secondary. Ethos was very strong in most schools.

"Scottish schools are by and large good places for children to go to and good places for children to be working. Teaching consistently comes across in our inspections as being of a high standard and we have a highly qualified teaching force which is by and large doing a very good job," Mr Donaldson said.

Leadership remained a critical issue and one that was wider than senior management, extending across schools. Managing and leading schools was one of the most complex tasks around but leaders in schools and local authorities stood comparison with any other walk of life.

While talking up the strengths, Mr Donaldson did not shy away from the weaknesses. "We do have a serious issue in terms of basic skills and we cannot continue with 20 per cent of adults lacking confidence in literacy and numeracy. They have all been through at least 11 years of school and we have to take responsibility for ensuring that no young person leaves school without confidence in these areas," he said.

As ministers had regularly pointed out, more had to be done for the most vulnerable young people and the children's services agenda had an important part to play in improving their prospects.

Mr Donaldson also believed that education, like other public services, had to be more personalised and customised and would have to be dramatically different. Never again would be it acceptable for initiatives such as the introduction of Standard grade to take 10 years. Change had to happen far more quickly.

Reflecting on the recent past, Mr Donaldson admitted a failure to focus enough on learning and teaching. "I do not think we have spent enough time on the craft of teaching, on the nature of the teaching process and on what makes for high-quality learning and teaching," he said.

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