OFSTED fails to grasp subtle issues of poverty;Letter

18th June 1999 at 01:00
KARL Turner's analysis of Office for Standards in Education data showed statistically what many people know intuitively - that schools in deprived areas do worse in inspections than those in wealthy areas (TES, May 21).

Mr Turner hits the nail on the head in questioning why this is so. Is it because poorer areas have weak teachers and incompetent managers or is it because the OFSTED system makes it almost inevitable that schools in deprived areas will get poor reports? Many of us who work in such schools feel that the latter is closer to the truth.

Chief inspector Chris Woodhead and Education Secretary David Blunkett have created a climate where one can quickly be accused of complacency or worse. Are we suggesting that deprived pupils are inherently less able or perhaps deserve less than those from the suburbs? Why will inner-city teachers not take responsibility for these poor results, Mr Woodhead seems to ask, unable to grasp that poor pupil performance does not inevitably indicate poor teaching.

The point is not that pupils in deprived areas are less intelligent than their more affluent peers. Many factors come into play. I work in a secondary which has 65 per cent of its pupils on free school meals. Many of them have grown up in an atmosphere which has given them little chance to develop skills needed for academic success.

My continuous struggle to update my form's list of addresses and telephone numbers is an indication of how chaotic their lives are. Phones are cut off, numbers are changed for complicated reasons, parents refuse to give their number or do not reply to letters, families move, children leave to live with their motherfather grandma and so on.

Unsurprisingly many of our pupils are not easy to teach. Getting them settled can take some time, no matter what strategy you adopt. There are fights, teachers are sworn at, pupils refuse to do as asked. It is not always easy to get on with teaching the subject. We are, of course, continuously trying to teach something that is far more important for many - how to behave in a socially acceptable way.

An OFSTED inspector, early in the first week, asked a colleague: "Why don't you just make them behave?" By the end of the week he had a better grasp of the problem and how well we were tackling it.

The truth is that there are no easy solutions and sometimes, for some pupils, there seem to be no solutions at all. We try though, and we usually have some effect. We are constantly coming up with new strategies and approaches, which of course takes up a lot of time, money and energy. Unfortunately we do not have significantly more time, money or energy than schools in the leafy suburbs.

The OFSTED response to Mr Turner's study was that it was "absolute nonsense. Inspectors recognise good teaching whether they see it in Reigate or Toxteth".

This is astoundingly simplistic and many inspectors could point out why it shows a poor grasp of the situation. Inspectors can recognise good teaching but it is very difficult to teach well under certain conditions, conditions which are often beyond the teacher's control.

There are some signs that real issues may now be tackled by the Government. We are keen to visit one of the new beacon schools to learn how to improve. But there seem to be no secondary beacons in catchment areas similar to ours.

The "value-added" concept also seems a better measure of school quality than the present league tables. But which kind of pupil do you think is easier to add "value" to, a motivated and well-behaved one with supportive parents? Or a disturbed and disaffected child from a dysfunctional family with a negative attitude to schools?

We were inspected by OFSTED 18 months ago and got a good report. A short while ago we were re-inspected by HM Inspectors. Despite our good OFSTED report our position in the league tables is not good and we know how simplistic government indicators are. They seem to think that poor attendance and poor GCSE results must indicate poor teacher performance.

Three HM inspectors came for two days and told us how we had to improve and gave us instructions which may prove useful once we have worked out what they mean.

Some of their conclusions, however, seemed to perpetuate the dishonesty in the education debate. We were told more than once that our performance in various areas was below that of similar schools. This obviously concerned us. Why were we doing less well than comparable schools? Only later did we discover what "similar schools" means. Schools with 35 per cent or more pupils on free school meals.

More cynical observers might even conclude that the system has been rigged so that schools with our kind of intake cannot do well by government criteria.

P Borchers

Picadilly Road, Chesterfield

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