Never had it so good;Opinion

12th February 1999 at 00:00
A "well done" from the chief inspector this week: welcome recognition of significant progress in schools since Chris Woodhead's first report four years ago. "Teachers are now teaching better and I pupils are learning more," he says in opening remarks in which he emphasises the achievements of the service.

"The statistics this year speak for themselves," the chief inspector writes. "In 1993-94 the quality of teaching was judged to be less than satisfactory in 25 per cent, 30 per cent, 19 per cent and 17 per cent of lessons in key stages 1, 2, 3 and 4 respectively. This year the comparable figures have fallen to 8 per cent, 8 per cent, 10 per cent and 7 per cent."

In fact, the statistics do not speak entirely for themselves since the criteria and grading scale for judging lessons have changed since 1994. But the apparent improvements are consistent with more objective test and examination results.

Mr Woodhead's more upbeat assessment followed the controversy surrounding his views on sex between teachers and pupils and might have seemed linked in some way. His report was, however, written weeks ago. Closer, in fact, to the embarrassing retraction he was forced to make over his unguarded remarks about the validity of key stage tests. And he would have composed his commentary in the knowledge that he would also be facing the education select committee this week. MPs on that committee have already questioned how far Office for Standards in Education inspections are contributing to school improvement. A good moment then to find that there has been some.

Even the famous 15,000 "incompetent" teachers were not highlighted in the report. Figures purporting to justify Mr Woodhead's previous assertions about these were only produced in response to reporters' questions, though it seems they were readily to hand. This week's 15,000 included all teachers rated 5, 6 or 7 by inspectors. They may all merit the term unsatisfactory but a grade 5 hardly seems an obvious case for dismissal, especially where a school may find it extremely difficult to recruit anyone better.

A more optimistic appraisal of the service may encourage more and better teachers to come forward. But the really constructive contribution OFSTED could make to recruitment of good heads and teachers to those schools where improvement is most needed is to demonstrate more convincingly that its inspections will be fair and based on like-for-like comparisons.

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