The state we're in

As the election looms, we publish extracts from chief inspector Chris Woodhead's annual report on the standards of our schools

This, my third annual report, will be published in the run up to the General Election. It is likely, therefore, to attract a good deal of interest. There is a danger that what is a complex story will be simplified in order to confirm comfortable preconceptions. We have many highly effective schools and outstanding, committed teachers, some of whom work in the most difficult and depressing of circumstances. There is much, on the evidence summarised in this report, to praise. There are also problems and weaknesses. Standards in schools will rise when solutions to these problems are found. They must be taken seriously. Those who are tempted to question our evidence base, to allege statistical sleight of hand, or to argue that it is unfair to blame teachers when problems stem from under-resourcing, low morale and lack of parental support, should think again.

To begin with an unequivocally positive statement the quality of teaching is satisfactory or better in the majority of lessons. It is only in a small proportion of schools where standards of pupil achievement are poor. As primary school teachers have become more familiar with the demands of the national curriculum, the quality of teaching, particularly in Years 5 and 6, has improved. There are signs of an improvement in standards in secondary schools that is reflected in public examination results. Pupils are for the most part well behaved. Despite the intensity of the national debate about the need to rediscover moral truths, most teachers do an excellent job in contributing to their pupils' social and moral development. Our schools are generally well led and well organised. They provide safe and orderly communities in which to educate young people.

This is not to pretend that all is well in all schools. Overall standards are similar to last year. That is to say, standards are good in about half of primary and three-fifths of secondary schools. In the rest they need to be improved. Substantial improvement is needed in about one in 12 primary schools in key stage 1 and one in six in key stage 2, and in about one in 10 secondary schools.

The quality of teaching is quite clearly the key to high standards. There are encouraging signs in two areas which are crucial to improving the quality of teaching.

The first is that more is being done to tackle the problem of the small, but significant, number of incompetent teachers who have a major impact on standards, particularly in small primary schools. But, while there are signs of more action being taken to support, and, if necessary, dismiss such teachers, too many children continue to mark time in too many schools because their teacher is not up to the job.

The second is that the culture in many schools is more questioning than it once was. Schools are beginning to look hard at the teaching methods and grouping arrangements they use. The percentage of lessons judged to be unsatisfactory or poor (about 16 per cent) is an improvement on last year's figures (18 per cent). The fact, however, that this figure remains as high as it does, shows that the old orthodoxies continue to exert their influence in too many classrooms.

There is, for example, too little direct teaching in many primary schools. Teachers by and large succeed in providing interesting activities. Too much teaching time, however, continues to be wasted on unduly complex organisational arrangements. The classrooms where children make most progress are those where teachers have high expectations of all pupils and where the bulk of the lessons is taken up by the teacher explaining, questioning, pushing back the frontiers of the children's knowledge.

The teaching may be to the whole class or to groups. Either way, an interesting and positive development is the move to organise according to their ability.

In last year's report I emphasised the need to improve standards in literacy and numeracy. It is still the case that pupils in too many primary schools are not making the progress they must if they are to succeed in their education and adult life.

Standards in literacy will rise when more schools improve the teaching of phonic work within a systematic programme for teaching reading. In the teaching of number too much time is still spent on repetitious written exercises. The individualised nature of such work means that pupils do not receive enough direct teaching. Mental arithmetic, which is particularly successful in short bursts, is being given greater whole-class teaching. Such teaching allows the teacher to explain and demonstrate a new idea, to question pupils to see if they have understood it, and to provide time for the class to practise and consolidate their understanding. These teaching methods are already raising standards in the schools that have adopted them.

Looking to the future, the contribution which initial teacher training makes to the dissemination of more effective teaching methods is obviously crucial. Pupils' behaviour and attitudes are generally good in both primary and secondary schools. The great majority of our schools are orderly communities and relationships between teachers and pupils are for the most part positive. Most schools have sensible policies for dealing with unacceptable behaviour.

Only a tiny percentage of children is permanently excluded from school. There is no truth to allegations that the rate of permanent exclusion has risen dramatically over the past year. It is clear, however, that some schools are very much better than others at preventing the escalation of poor behaviour to the point where a pupil has to be excluded. The quality of provision for pupils who have been excluded remains a serious cause for concern.

It is worrying that a higher proportion of special schools has serious weaknesses, or is subject to special measures, than other schools. There are particular weaknesses in schools which cater for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties. While it it true that such pupils clearly present severe problems and challenges for their teachers, excellent practice has been identified in some schools and OFSTED intends to look at the key features which underpin this success.

Issues of school management have been thrown into sharp relief by this year's inspection fundings. Most schools are well led, but leadership is poor in one in seven primaries and one in 10 secondaries.

There has been little change in the level of resources from last year. One in four secondary and one in eight primary schools have shortages of books which adversely affect teaching and make the setting of homework difficult. It is clear that some schools use funds much better than others. There are nevertheless considerable variations in the funding that schools receive, the amount they are able or decide to spend on learning resources and the budget surpluses they hold. OFSTED is investigating how far differences can be justified.

In the large majority of schools inspected, appraisal arrangements for teachers and headteachers have very little impact on improving the quality of teaching and standards of pupil achievement. The impact of much in service education and training is weak in this respect. Much more needs to be done within schools to make appraisal and INSET work effectively.

Last but not least, the debate continues over how local authorities can best support schools in raising standards. Those LEAs which continue to carry out pre-OFSTED inspections on all schools need to consider whether such activity is not a waste of scarce time and resources. The most effective LEAs make use of inspection findings and analyse indicators such as examination data in order to provide services that schools need and target resources at those schools which are in difficulty. In coming months OFSTED will, as a priority, inspect the quality of the support which LEAs offer schools in their efforts to improve standards.

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