High price of polemic;Opinion

19th June 1998 at 01:00
Brian Lymbery takes Chris Woodhead to task for concentrating on one school's weaknesses and ignoring its strengths

Chief inspector Chris Woodhead is right to argue (TES, June 5) that children from areas of high social deprivation deserve the highest standards of education and that we must not lower our expectations of the inner-city school.

However, he would have been wiser to have stuck to the Office for Standards in Education's policy of not discussing individual schools publicly rather than to have listed the main deficiencies of Lewisham Bridge primary school in a manner which may reinforce his polemic, but which will do no good to the school itself.

OFSTED inspection reports are public documents but they set out, in an objective way, both strengths and weaknesses of a school. The report on Lewisham Bridge is no exception. The school has strengths but by publicly focusing only on his view of its weaknesses, Mr Woodhead increases the burden of those who are now struggling to bring about improvement.

No one should be under any illusion that turning round a failing school is easy, even in the best of circumstances. I have been a governor in a neighbouring primary school, the largest in Lewisham, for nearly 10 years, most of that time as chair. Five months ago, however, I became chair of governors at another nearby school which went into special measures following its OFSTED inspection last year. In many areas we have made rapid progress since then, but the task is a demanding one.

The LEA has been supportive. The staff have shown a renewed commitment and energy to move forward. Parents are becoming more involved in the school. The regular HMI visits provide an objective and practical assessment of progress. And yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to find good staff to fill vacancies in inner-city primary schools such as this.

We have already advertised twice for a head but were unable to make an appointment. To work and make progress in a school with almost 50 per cent of children eligible for free school meals and nearly 30 per cent with English as an additional language can be very rewarding, but it presents major challenges too.

The Government needs to address the recruitment difficulties of many inner-city schools if its efforts to turn around failing schools are to be more successful.

I remain unconvinced that OFSTED inspections adequately take account of the particularly difficult circumstances in which most inner-city schools operate. OFSTED's own data does not seem fully to support Chris Woodhead's argument here.

Its helpful, but incongruously named, PANDA report contains an analysis of primary schools inspected between April 1996 and July 1997. This showed that, in the standards achieved by pupils, 69 per cent of schools with socially advantaged intakes, having below or well below average free school meals, were graded good or very good while only 2 per cent required substantial improvement.

In schools with deprived intakes, having well above average free school meals take-up, just 24 per cent achieved standards graded as good or very good, while 26 per cent required substantial improvement. Similarly 68 per cent of the socially advantaged schools had a good or very good quality of education, with only between 4 per cent and 7 per cent in need of substantial improvement.

Conversely, 14 per cent of schools in the well-above-average free school meals band required substantial improvement in their quality of education, and only 45 per cent were rated good or very good.

This analysis was of inspections before the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's benchmarking data became available. It remains to be seen whether benchmarking will affect the inspectors' perceptions in future.

The fact that grades for schools with highly deprived intakes were so much worse than grades for schools with fewer than average free school meals suggests that something is still not right with the inspection process and framework, that policies to tackle educational disadvantage need to be reviewed or that action is needed in both these areas.

Chris Woodhead would do well to apply his considerable intellect to resolving these problems rather than mounting public attacks on individual schools which cannot easily answer back.

Brian Lymbery is chair of governors at Lucas Vale primary school, Lewisham.

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