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On the up, but mind the dips

It's official: the education system is improving. The results of last year's inspections show that more teachers are teaching well; children's results are getting better; most pupils have a positive attitude to school; and bad behaviour is a problem in only about 4 per cent of schools.

What's more, according to the annual report from Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, the culture of education is changing as schools become more open and accountable and expectations rise.

The chief inspector points out that this improvement has been achieved at a time when, teachers feel, "those who comment on education fail to appreciate the extent to which some teachers have, on a day-to-day basis, to deal with the tragic consequences of family breakdown, long-term unemployment, and poor housing".

But in spite of the real effect that external factors have on achievement - and the report includes graphs which show that, on average, high levels of free school meals are associated with lower national test and GCSE scores - some schools do achieve much better than others with the same type of intake. This year, the report highlights the weaknesses of some schools blessed with favoured intakes, which coast along complacently without stretching either pupils or staff.

These variations mean that whether a child gets a really effective education still involves an unacceptable element of luck. Chris Woodhead is right to underline this persistent gap between the best schools and the worst. International studies have shown for some years that variability is a characteristic feature of our education system. Whether a British child does well or badly in those international tests depends to a large extent on which school he or she attends. This is not true to the same extent in most other developed countries, and has almost certainly been exacerbated by the previous government's emphasis on competition between schools.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking finding in the report is that there are two consistent "dips" in achievement levels - in Years 3 and 4, and again in Years 8 and 9. This suggests that schools, not surprisingly, are putting much of their effort into the children who are approaching key stage tests. This targeting of resources may be fair enough - but it also may be that, across the country, the years following these assessments are being presided over by the weakest teachers. This could be particularly crucial for 12 and 13-year-old boys, some of whom become disaffected in early adolescence.

Such strategies may soon be ill-advised at primary level, since the children who will be 11 in 2002 are seven now, and due to take their key stage 1 tests this summer. And those who will be sitting key stage 2 national tests in May 2001 - probably the last cohort before the next election - are eight now, and have already entered the dreaded "dip". Year 3 can no longer be seen as a low-stakes year - for schools, for local education authorities, or for the Government itself. For the children in these two year groups, every year from now on must be seen as high stakes, if the literacy and numeracy targets are to be met.

One clear message from this report is the importance of feedback if individuals or institutions are to raise their performance. Our Research Focus this week (page 22) highlights research which shows that if children are given clear information about the quality of their work - along with help in dealing with weak spots - their performance improves dramatically. Recent experience has shown that the same is true of schools. OFSTED's most important contribution to raising educational standards must be through furnishing accurate and unbiased feedback to schools and local authorities alike - while remaining above the political fray.

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