A partial picture of progress

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
I read with great interest Chris Woodhead's defence of inspection data in last week's TES and would like to reply to the main points raised in his letter.

1 He claims that the annual report clearly sets out the basis upon which he interpreted the evidence provided by inspection. The report is far from clear or upfront about that basis. Neither the initial statement in paragraph 4 ("it is evident that overall standards of pupil achievement need to be raised in about half of primary and two-fifths of secondary schools") nor the subsequent reference in paragraph 37 is cross-referenced to Annex 3 (page 76). If they try hard enough, readers can track down the explanation - but in the sixth paragraph, in the third annex, on the very last page of the report.

The interpretation offered in Annex 3 is suspect. Certainly, features of schools rated 4 (neutrally) are "amenable to improvement", but so are features graded 2 or 3.

2 Chris Woodhead claims that the decision on the mid-point of the scale was taken collectively by senior HMI. I was not party to such a collective decision. I did send in a number of unsolicited minutes "arguing my corner" but I was never called to a meeting to discuss the issue. I do not know what collective decision-making means in the context of the Office for Standards in Education, but the fact remains that the interpretation, however arrived at, is featured in HMCI's annual report and hence becomes his interpretation. If some other senior HMI were complicit in that decision, then his or her judgment needs to be questioned, too.

3 Until the publication of his letter, it was not known publicly that OFSTED's approach to interpreting evidence would not be changed for the next annual report, even though the basis for the interpretation changes from this Easter onwards with the implementation of the new framework. Presumably, the data from the summer term will not be included in the next report - rendering it partial in a different sense.

4 I agree with Chris Woodhead that no one believes that standards in literacy and numeracy are unimportant. Primary teachers certainly believe them to be vitally important, hence the large amount of time devoted to their acquisition in primary schools. Why then do he and another senior HM inspector, Jim Rose, continue to stress in their talks to teachers that their "core business" is literacy and numeracy? Such reminders of the obvious are insulting to teachers' sense of professionalism.

5 Chris Woodhead is right to point out that previous annual reports (including one in which I was prominently involved) have drawn attention to unsatisfactory practice in primary schools but once again he overstates the problem.

For example, in his annual report for 1992-3 the first HMCI, Stuart Sutherland, did make reference to 30 per cent, but in the context of key stage 2, not key stage 1, and the figure referred to teaching that was "less than satisfactory", rather than poor or very poor. The latest annual report seems unable to report degrees of unsatisfactoriness (that is, unsatisfactory, poor and very poor), even though OFSTED's rating scales employ such distinctions.

Chris Woodhead fails to disclose that Eric Bolton's "stubborn statistic" of 30 per cent is stubborn no longer. In 1994-95, about four-fifths of lessons in each subject at both key stages were judged to be satisfactory or better, according to OFSTED's own publication, Subjects and Standards.

6 I agree entirely with him that "we must tell it as it is". "How it is" must include at least the following unpublished data from 1994-95 inspections if the picture reported is not to be misleading or partial: * Standards of achievement were satisfactory or better in 94 per cent of sessions in nursery classes and 90 per cent of lessons in reception classes, including three out of 10 where standards were good; * In key stage 1, standards of achievement were satisfactory or better in 85 per cent of classes including a quarter which were good; * In key stage 2, much maligned in the report, just over eight out of 10 lessons were judged satisfactory, including almost a quarter which were good; * In key stage 1, children's reading competence was judged negatively (that is, 5-7) in 8 per cent of schools, but only graded poor (6) in 2 per cent, and very poor (7) in 0 per cent; * Overall standards of achievement were judged negatively in 9 per cent of schools at KS1 and in 16 per cent at KS2; they were judged to be poor in 1 per cent at KS1 and 2 per cent at KS2, and they were judged very poor in 0 per cent in both key stages.

Such figures give no cause for complacency, but neither do they support the view that primary education is in a parlous state. They do not substantiatate the annual report's claim that "it is evident that overall standards of pupil achievement need to be raised in about half of primary . . . schools." I remain convinced that the current annual report presents a partial, misleading picture stressing weaknesses in current practice, failing to acknowledge achievements and contributing to the current malaise in primary education.

COLIN RICHARDS Spark Bridge Ulverston Cumbria

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