The gap according to Woodhead is widening
"There is nothing else like it in the world," said Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, launching the state-of-the-nation report on secondary education in England.
And close scrutiny of the Office for Standards in Education report suggests Chris Woodhead's words may prove more portentous than he intended.
Based on more than 3,500 inspections and observation of 500,000 lessons, the review concludes that standards have risen and teaching quality has improved in the first four-year cycle of secondary school inspections.
However, there is an unacceptably wide and widening gap in the standards achieved in the least and most successful schools.
OFSTED cites figures (not in the report) showing the top and bottom 10 per cent of schools had average GCSE points scores of 46.1 and 15.7 respectively in 1992. Comparative 1996 figures were 51.8 and 19.8, a gap of 30.4 points in 1992, growing to 32 in 1996.
But what distinguishes this report is that, among the charts, tables, statistics, and examples of good practice, is the acknowledgement that some schools have it tougher than others.
The report notes the difficulties faced by disadvantaged schools in consistently raising standards, that poor resources affect the quality of provision, and that competition - via parental choice and performance league tables - has not always been a good thing.
It also acknowledges the important support provided by education authorities in helping to turn around failing schools.
Launching the report this week, Chris Woodhead remained combative on competition's spur to raising standards (not proven, according to the report) and the need to improve teaching quality and school leadership still further.
But he praised first.
Highlighting improvements in standards, GCSE results and teaching quality, he noted: "These improvements are down very much to headteachers and teachers in the schools concerned, and they deserve all possible praise and recognition."
The change in tone was acknowledged by Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.
"I am glad that at long last an OFSTED report admits the obvious - that inadequate resources hinder effective teaching," he said.
"Both the previous and present governments have supported the re-establishment of 'social grammar schools' through measures including grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges, specialist and beacon schools which, combined with unfettered parental choice, lead to the disadvantaged 'council comprehensive' facing even greater difficulties.
"Recent classic cases of schools in difficulty amply illustrate the point that while teachers must carry some share of the responsibility, there are many other factors at play over which they have little or no control."
School standards minister Stephen Byers welcomed the improved standards detailed in the report - and promised measures to tackle the 10 per cent of secondary schools with significant weaknesses.
Leader, page 16 Secondary Education 1993-97: A Review of Secondary Schools in England, is available from the Publications Centre, price pound;22.95. Tel 0171 873 9090 or fax 0171 873 8200.
OFSTED's findings include:
* Two out of five secondary schools are consistently good, but one in ten has significant weaknesses.
* Just over one in 50 fails to provide an acceptable quality of education.
* There is a wide and growing gap between the top and bottom 10 per cent of schools.
* More pupils are leaving school with better qualifications than four years ago, and GCSE and A-level success has risen steadily.
* One in nine pupils fails to get five GCSEs at grades A* to G, and one in 14 leaves without a formal qualification.
* The underperformance of boys and some ethnic minority groups is of "serious concern".
* Information technology skills are underdeveloped in half of schools.