Good and bad, but no more Mr Nasty

6th February 1998 at 00:00
The chief inspector's fourth annual report - the first under a Labour Government - offers a mixed diagnosis of the health of the nation's schools, presented in a markedly more conciliatory style.

Discussing the report, Chris Woodhead seemed keen to show he had been scrupulously even-handed with the gold stars and the black marks. He was also at pains to emphasise how neatly his inspectors' evidence backs up Government policy, particularly the need to concentrate on literacy and numeracy.

He avoided adding to his famous "extrapolations" of previous years - pronouncements on the number of bad teachers or heads. "One in six heads at primary and one in 10 at secondary are not offering the leadership we believe schools should have," he said this week. "But this is not to say that they are incompetent. We are simply saying inspectors are asking questions about them." The chief inspector denied that he was "going soft on teachers", though he admitted that it was "naive" to pretend standards in all schools could ever match the best.

The good news, according to Mr Woodhead, is that the quality of teaching has improved; 50 per cent of lessons are now good or better; standards have risen; the old defensive and complacent culture is disappearing; more teachers have seen the error of their ways and returned to whole-class teaching, phonics, clear subject boundaries and mental arithmetic. He implied that these improvements were the fruit of repeated efforts by the Office for Standards in Education and others to challenge classroom complacency: "Underlying these statistics is a growing willingness to question the culture."

On the other hand, the number of teachers and headteachers judged unsatisfactory remains the same as last year; there is still a pronounced dip in pupils' performance in the middle years of both primary and secondary schools; boys are still lagging behind girls and schools need to brush up their assessment of both pupils and teachers. Some teacher trainers are also overestimating their students' ability to teach reading, the report says.

Most worryingly, there is no sign of a slowdown in the number of schools in trouble going on to special measures. School improvement has begun to look like a revolving door - as one batch of schools is given a clean bill of health, a new batch is shunted into special measures, suggesting that there is a recalcitrant hard core of failure that just won't respond to treatment.

Mr Woodhead himself admitted that "there appears to be an intractable problem with a minority of schools ... and this does show that special measures is not working sufficiently well and quickly enough to solve the problem completely." The disproportionately high percentage of special schools in special measures (7 per cent, compared with 2 per cent of other schools) has not been reduced.

Of schools with "serious weaknesses", two-thirds of primaries and two-thirds of special schools have made satisfactory improvement, but only half of secondaries have managed this.

He identifies four priorities for the coming year:

l The continuing need to raise standards of literacy and numeracy. "The roots of social exclusion lie for many in the early years of primary education...the Government is therefore to be congratulated on its comprehensive and systematic approach to raising standards in these basic skills".

l The need to make education less of a lottery - there is still too much variation between schools in similar areas and with similar intakes.

l Tackling the substantial underachie vement that persists - one in 10 schools at key stage 1, one in eight at KS2, one in 10 at KS3 and one in 14 at KS4.

lAddressing the gap between boys and girls - average points scores at GCSE last year was 39.2 for girls and 34.7 for boys. Schools must emphasise basic skills at primary and confront boys' "anti-achievement culture" at secondary.

The report also suggests that the key stage 1 tests are pitched too low and therefore give too optimistic a picture of pupils' abilities, creating too big a gap between KS1 and KS2. The chief inspector also asks schools to give particular attention to "weak teaching" in Years 3 and 4 in primaries and Years 8 and 9 in secondarie s.

Mr Woodhead included a veiled warning to the Government about overloading teachers. The quality of teaching must be the priority, he writes. "Every Government initiative must be tested against this key imperative. Will it help teachers teach better or might it distract them from their key task?"

Five local authorites were inspected (voluntarily) last year, and the report has some tough words for them. "Local education authority planning for school improvement was generally weak". Aims and objectives were not clearly set out and "rhetoric about 'partnership' often obscured a lack of detail about the obligations and accountability implied for both sides".

One in five private boarding schools is failing to provide acceptable standards of care, while conditions in one in 20 are a cause for serious concern, says the report.

Inspectors found health and safety problems in a third of the schools, including lack of proper hearing and dangerous windows or staircases.

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