Mind the gap;Opinion

12th June 1998 at 01:00
For anyone who has had the dubious pleasure of reading the Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools for the past four years, this week's review of secondary schooling by OFSTED contains few surprises - except perhaps its largely sensible tone and its acceptance of the genuine difficulties many schools face in raising standards.

Recognising the "vicious circle" that some unsuccessful schools get locked into - unable to attract good staff and only able to attract pupils excluded by other schools - the review provides a useful overview of the first round of 3,500 inspections.

This report is comparable in many ways with the 1988 HMI survey of secondary schools. It finds there are more good schools than ten years ago and fewer with major weaknesses. But it also points to the considerable scope that remains for progress when one in 14 pupils still leaves school with no qualifications.

On GCSE performance, the report is commendable for its emphasis on points scores (where A* scores 8 and G scores 1) rather than the five A to C benchmark. Giving equal weight to progress across the spectrum provides an incentive to improve the results of all pupils.

In fact, according to OFSTED, the points score of the bottom 25 per cent of pupils increased by only 2.5 per cent between 1991 and 1996, when the average improvement was 6.2 points. This underlines the widening gap in achievement between pupils.

It is less easy to see how the report - or its statistical annex - justifies OFSTED's claim that the gap is also widening between the most and the least successful schools. Nor is there evidence to back the chief inspector's assertion that there is "an unjustifiable gap in standards attained by schools serving similar communities".

The fact that two schools have the same proportion of pupils eligible for free meals does not make them equally disadvantaged nor mean that they are "serving similar communities". As the report implicitly acknowledges, there may also be wide differences in the stability and mobility of intakes, levels of literacy and numeracy on entry, parental support, religious and ethnic backgrounds and the proportions of pupils not speaking English at

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