Karen Thornton finds mixed messages for the profession in Chris Woodhead's report
It's official - secondary schools are worse off than they used to be, employ fewer teachers who have less non-contact time and larger classes, and churn out a long tail of under-achieving pupils.
Now for the good news. Standards are rising, the quality of teaching has improved, and leadership is good in three-quarters of schools. The chief inspector says this, so it must be true.
The latest report from the Office for Standards in Education is a massive 174 pages and draws together its findings on all 3,594 English secondary schools from the first four-year cycle (1993-97) of inspection.
There are few surprises - most of the conclusions and performance data have already been aired in HMCI's annual reports and school league tables. The headlines refer to rising standards but also a growing performance gap between the best and worst schools. However, the only statistic to substantiate this is the claim that "the gap between the top 10 per cent of schools and the bottom 10 per cent in terms of GCSE score widened between 1992 and 1996".
But there are other messages for heads and teachers dotted among the charts and tables. Teachers get a pat on the back for doing their job. The quality of teaching is rated at least satisfactory in around 90 per cent of lessons, and lesson planning, content, activities, pace and motivation are also deemed to have improved.
Assessment remains the weakest aspect of teaching, says the report, which also highlights problems with differentiation.
Teachers' difficulties in matching work to the needs of pupils with differing abilities are leading to significant variations in pupil progress in two-fifths of schools. Progress by more able pupils is weak in 30 per cent of schools, and by special needs pupils in one-tenth of secondaries.
Teachers pitch work at the middle range of a class, and setting is no guarantee that work will be well-matched to the ability range of a class, warns the report.
Elsewhere, the message for teachers seems to be "toughen up". Marking of work varies unacceptably, classroom questioning to test pupils' knowledge is sometimes over-sensitive to their feelings, and many reports to parents still don't spell out the weaknesses in pupils' progress and attainment.
The report insists that more classroom observation of teachers is the key to boosting teaching quality further, despite recognising the reluctance of both heads and senior and departmental managers to monitor colleagues.
Observation is also vital if schools are to improve monitoring and evaluation of their own progress - still the weakest aspect of management in nearly one-third of schools, despite some improvement, according to OFSTED.
"Systematic monitoring of teaching by classroom observation, whether formal or informal, is still relatively rare," says the report. "In many schools, senior managers therefore lack key knowledge essential to fulfil their responsibility of raising standards.
"Often, headteachers fear that classroom teachers will see such observation as threatening and that good staff relationships will suffer." The report notes that managers need adequate non-contact time to carry out monitoring.
There are some throw-away lines worthy of more analysis than the report gives them. Behaviour, for example, is at least satisfactory in most schools, despite a rise in exclusions. But there has been a fall in the number of schools where behaviour is considered good - which is tenuously linked to a similar trend in provision for pupils' moral development.
The academic under-performance of boys is strongly highlighted, but it seems they are also losing out in PE, where an emphasis on traditional games has led to an over-narrow curriculum.
Secondary Education 1993-97: A Review of Secondary Schools in England is available from the Publications Centre, price pound;22.95, by telephoning 0171 873 9090 or faxing 0171 873 8200.