Lambeth is gaining a lot from its Ofsted experience, according to Bruce Gill and Mike Tomlinson.
Planning for the improvement of schools in Lambeth is being lent new impetus by the findings of the Office for Standards in Education accelerated programme of inspections. The announcement of the programme in October 1995 came at a point when five out of the 16 schools inspected in the south London borough were found to be in need of "special measures" and three more were considered to have serious weaknesses.
The Ofsted decision to inspect all the remaining schools by the end of 1996 was seen by some observers to presage yet more dire discoveries. The notoriety of the borough had been kept very much alive in the media.
One year on and two-thirds into the accelerated programme a more optimistic picture is emerging - one which is providing Lambeth with a database upon which to build its school improvement plan.
During the last academic year 45 inspections have been carried out, bringing the number of Lambeth schools inspected to 55 out of a total of 88. The number of schools declared to be in need of "special measures" has risen to eight. This represents about 14 per cent of those now inspected compared with about 30 per cent at the end of the 1995 academic year. Further, the eight includes one school which has now closed and St John the Divine CE Primary School which this July became the first Lambeth school to come out of "special measures".
Even more interesting is the significant number of Lambeth schools receiving good reports. Sudbourne Primary School, inspected in 199495, was identified as an excellent primary school in Her Majesty's Chief Inspector's annual report of that year. This has been followed by a succession of reports identifying good schools. The Ofsted analysis has shown that 50 per cent of the primary schools inspected are "good schools", a figure slightly above that for all London boroughs and just a little below that for England as a whole.
That is not to say that everything is fine in Lambeth. It is not. The inspection data reveals that Lambeth has proportionately more schools in the categories of "schools requiring improvement" and "schools requiring substantial improvement" than either London as a whole or England. Further, analysis shows that this wide variation in the performance of schools is not explained by the socio-economic backgrounds of the pupils. Thus if the best can achieve so much then it is within the power of the less successful to emulate them. This will be Lambeth's challenge in the near future.
More detailed analysis of the inspection data is not only revealing the strengths and weaknesses of individual schools but also trends within groups of schools and more widely across the borough. For example, the common features of the good schools include: a very high proportion of sound or better teaching; good leadership and management; high expectations of pupils and good subject knowledge of the teachers.
In the weakest of schools - those requiring substantial improvements - the major problem is poor discipline and control, which make effective teaching very difficult. In those schools requiring improvement it is the quality of teaching which is the major weakness. In particular, lessons lack one or more of: appropriate objectives; sufficient challenge and pace; high enough expectations of pupils and sufficient command of subject knowledge. Some 40 per cent of lessons in the poorer schools suffered from these weaknesses.
This analysis will provide crucial underpinning of Lambeth's school improvement plan. It will enable support to be more targeted and refined, by recognising that the nature and scope of what needs to be done to improve schools is not the same in all cases. The inspection data are providing the local education authority with the means of tailoring its support to meet the needs of individual schools.
The accelerated inspection programme and the findings now emerging raise a number of questions. How do we account for the apparent polarisation of schools into largely two groups - good and poor with few in between? What impact will the needs of so many schools, identified simultaneously by the inspection programme, mean for the role of the local authority in school improvement?
While answers to these two questions are complex, it is clear that the inner city and urban areas present great challenges for schools and local authorities. Indeed this issue was the subject of a special meeting in 1994 when Lambeth officers, headteachers and Chris Woodhead met to consider how Ofsted and inner-city local education authorities might better co-ordinate their work.
One possible explanation for the polarisation of schools into good or poor is that whereas "average" teachers and schools might pass muster elsewhere in the country, within the inner cities they may need to be "above average" to survive, let alone do well. However, such a thesis has not yet been put to the test.
As to the question of how Lambeth will respond to the needs of all its schools, the first point to make is that schools must be responsible for their own improvement. However, many schools, particularly those in special measures and with serious weaknesses, look to the local authority to provide the leadership and support necessary to enable them to improve.
The fact that Lambeth may have to respond to all schools within a short period of time is a challenge. It will require very careful management and will place considerable pressure on finite resources. That said, the database Lambeth is compiling, with the support and help of Ofsted will soon cover all schools and hence should support the prioritising of work and the targeting of resources. The local authority and schools will need to set realistic and attainable targets for improvement covering both academic and social development.
Finally, the way forward entails Lambeth building upon the many positive experiences and successful practice revealed by what initially seemed a forbidding process. The positives include the co-operation between the local authority and Ofsted; the remarkable networking and collaboration among Lambeth headteachers; the exceptional co-operation and support shown by external agencies and neighbouring boroughs and last, but not least, the extraordinary dedication and goodwill shown by Lambeth teachers. The children of Lambeth cannot but benefit.
Bruce Gill is Lambeth's assistant director of education (quality assurance). Mike Tomlinson is Ofsted director of inspection