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Loosen the state corset on schools

Michael Bassey urges ministers to let primaries breathe

RECURRENT message of the General Election was the urgent need to raise the morale of teachers in all sectors. There is no point in planning further reforms if teachers are too demoralised and too few to implement them.

Primary schools have been in the front line of change ever since 1988. For them raising standards has entailed, not just belt and braces, but buckles, buttons, elastic and safety pins. State intervention - in the curriculum, teaching methods, assessment, inspection, organisation, and performance appraisal - has become like a Victorian corset, constricting the vital organs and narrowing the frame.

External pressures must be reduced if morale is to recover and the creative energy of these schools released.

The chief inspector of schools' most recent annual report points to substantial improvements in primary school achievement. "The quality of teaching and that of management are improving, and standards are rising. Primary schools are doing better than ever," the report says. "The national literacy and numeracy strategies have focused on key aspects of successful teaching and this has led to higher attainment by pupils. At key stage 2 the proportion of pupils attaining level 4 or above has improved by 3 percentage points in mathematics and by 4 percentage points in English (since the previous year). In science most pupils make good progress in both key stages."

The report judged teaching to be good or better in more than six in 10 lessons and unsatisfactory or poor in one in 20. Most schools, it says, have a broad and balanced curriculum. About nine in 10 schools have satisfactory or good extra-curricular provision. It says that provision for moral development is good in nine in 10 schools. Social development is effectively promoted in most schools. The care of pupils is effective in the vast majority of schools.

Personal development of pupils, the report continues, is good or better in more than eight in 10 schools. Behaviour is good in over eight i 10 schools and unsatisfactory in very few. Pupils generally have good or very good attitudes to learning. Most schools have very effective links with parents.

Finally, the report notes that most headteachers have a clear vision for their school's development and the ability to translate this into a positive ethos that encourages others to participate in school improvement.

The chief inspector's findings constitute a prima facie case for stopping Office for Standards in Education inspection of primary schools, except where monitoring by local authorities reveals major problems.

OFSTED inspection has served its purpose and is no longer needed. The British Educational Research Association raised the question, to the Parliamentary Select Committee in Education in March, of whether there is any evidence that inspections have contributed to the improvement of standards.

A ceasefire could be coupled with a recognition that - with self-evaluation of primary schools, LEA monitoring, teacher performance targets, key-stage pupil assessments, and school development planning - external inspection is no longer necessary.

The termination of inspections would give an enormous boost to morale in schools. It would remove the sense of terror that is often felt and also convey a clear message of trust in teachers and recognition that, through self-evaluation of schools, they are the best judges of how well they are doing and how to enhance their work.

Such a decision would also help with recruitment and retention. The chief inspector's annual report referred specifically to the latter issue. To give all young people the education they deserve, the most important ingredient remains a teaching profession which is of high quality, sufficient in numbers and managed well.

Urgent action is needed more than ever on the recruitment and retention of teachers, otherwise the progress made by schools in raising standards is at risk.

Michael Bassey is an emeritus professor of education of Nottingham Trent University

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