When critics of Britain's state schools are asked to pinpoint where the rot sets in, they come up with a wide range of answers - the overcrowded infant classroom, the excessively child-centred junior school or the slack and chaotic comprehensive years.
But statistics from the Office for Standards in Education appear to suggest that where it all begins to go wrong is the summer holiday between the last day of primary school and the first of secondary.
The Chief Inspector's report for 1996-97 shows that at key stage 2 (ages seven to 11), inspectors were generally pleased with pupils' attainment and progress in 88 per cent of schools (28 per cent good and 60 per cent satisfactory). But the secondary inspectors found that "attainment on entry" was good or satisfactory in only half of the schools they visited.
The anomaly has been highlighted by Professor John Gray, director of research at Homerton College, Cambridge, and a forceful critic of the inspection system.
"It comes as a surprise to discover that in the short time between pupils leaving primary and entering secondary school the generally buoyant assessment of their performance seems to have collapsed," he told an audience at the Institute of Education in London, where he is a visiting professor. Professor Gray said that it could be argued that such inconsistencies did not matter. For some people, the only really important inspection finding was that by the end of compulsory schooling, pupils in more than nine out of 10 schools were either making "excellent, very good or good progress where most of them achieve better than expected" or "satisfactory progress where most pupils achieve reasonably well".
But he was concerned about such anomalies. He was also worried about the map of pupils' achievements that OFSTED was offering policy-makers, and the resulting conclusion that most of the under-achieving pupils were to be found in "bad" schools.
"This conclusion may be strategically convenient but I am not sure that it is firmly grounded," he said. "There are, in fact, relatively few schools where pupils are uniformly low-performing."
Politicians and educationists must broaden their view of the kinds of schools which needed help, he said. Tackling the "worst" schools was important, but it would have only a modest effect on national standards; helping schools with "serious weaknesses" should have a much greater impact.
Professor Gray also said that policy-makers should keep in mind some key research findings: * most schools have pupils who are doing well compared to national norms as well as pupils who are doing badly;
* about one in eight schools may be doing well, given their intakes, while a similar proportion may be doing badly; between two-thirds and three-quarters are, however, performing around the levels one would predict, judging by their pupils' starting points;
* performance of secondary subject departments is highly variable and only a minority of schools do well across the board.
But he admitted that researchers had yet to answer several important questions. "The feeling that we already know what distinguishes a more effective school from a less effective one has, in my view, run ahead of the evidence. More research is needed, especially on the variations in teachers' performances and pupils' experiences within schools. Are schools differentially effective for boys and girls? And if so, to what extent? Crucially, are there more than a handful of schools which are more effective for boys than girls? At present, I believe we simply do not know."
BERA CONFERENCE RUNOURS SCOTCHED
* The British Educational Research Association has scotched rumours that its 1998 conference would be called off because of a lack of bookings.
This week Professor Michael Bassey, executive secretary of BERA, said that there was no threat to the event - to be held at Queen's University, Belfast, between August 27 and 30. "About 520 papers have been submitted for the conference. It therefore has all the signs of being a very successful event."