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Reporting for England

Targets are fine, says chief inspector David Bell, but assessment from the chalkface is vital as well.

Earlier in the month, my first report on the state of education in England was published. I found myself in the position not only of reporting for England but of talking for England - with more than 20 interviews on national and local television and radio.

I was pleased to recognise the success of teachers in improving the quality of their work over the past ten years. I acknowledged the better leadership and management that now exist in our schools. And, yes, I also highlighted concerns, including the achievement of boys and the difficulties of raising attainment in some secondary schools.

But reporting for England is only partly about the big picture - national trends, key issues, major findings; it is also about what happens all over the country. Radio "X" is only mildly interested in whether national standards have risen, but it is passionately concerned with what makes primary school "Y" such a good school.

As chief inspector, I constantly find myself assessing the demands of central government alongside the realities of teaching and leading in individual schools. I advise ministers on matters of law and policy, but I do so on the basis of what these things look like on the ground.

One issue that I have reflected on much recently is the real tension between the need to make urgent improvements in our education system and the reality that deep-rooted change often takes time. All too often I hear teachers complain that the world doesn't fit neatly into the scheme dreamed up by Whitehall policy wonks which has little relevance to Year 10 on the proverbial wet Wednesday afternoon.

We also hear politicians of all parties, both in and out of government, complain about resistance to change and things not happening quickly enough to deal with our pressing problems.

But I must be able to tell it as it is, without fear or favour. If I find that a particular government policy is working brilliantly, then I shall say so loud and clear - not because I am a government poodle (I am anything but) but because that is what our evidence tells me. But if I find that schools are confused or overwhelmed, that improvement has stalled or that some parts of the system are missing out, then that is what I shall say, too, regardless of whether that is an uncomfortable message for central government.

Fortunately, this is exactly what central government both wants and needs.

The Government's policies are rightly focused on raising standards: it wants more and more young people to achieve more and more.

Our report shows clearly that these policies are bearing fruit. But it also highlights some groups and individuals for whom standards are still not high enough, and it raises some critical questions about what still needs to be done if demanding national targets are to be met.

It was absolutely right that ambitious targets were set in areas such as attainment at 11 and 16. We were not doing well enough and we had to do better. National targets helped us to focus and, where supported by significant investment in staff development and other materials, they brought momentum for change. But one of the things inspectors find is that an excessive or myopic focus on targets can actually narrow and reduce achievement by crowding out some of the essentials of effective and broadly based learning.

They also find teachers, heads and local authorities for whom targets are now operating more as a threat than a motivator, more as stick than carrot.

Moreover, the harder the targets become, the more tempting it is to treat them with cynicism or defeatism.

I believe that the time is now right to take greater account of what teachers are saying about the pupils in their own schools and, more specifically, what strategies they will deploy to improve attainment. This may present a more realistic picture of likely progress in the short and medium term.

Crucially, schools' work is still open to account, not least through the inspection system. This is not, emphatically, to reject the idea of targets. But it is a timely reminder that there is a crucial balance struck between governmental initiative and legitimate powers of intervention, on the one hand, and the professional responsibility of individuals, making decisions in the interests of their pupils on the other.

As chief inspector, I know that I must never be tempted by the imperatives of realpolitik to lose sight of a deeper reality: that of the chalkface.

But, importantly, I do not need to. Ultimately, that which links government's desire to intervene and schools' desire to get on and teach is one and the same thing: the common interest in pupils' attainment of the high standards which I shall again be looking for the next time I am reporting for England.

This article is based on the 5th City of York Annual Lecture given by the chief inspector yesterday. It was sponsored by The TES

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