OFSTED's message for Scottish schools;Comment;Opinion

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Scotland has roughly a tenth of the schools south of the border. So instead of the 203 singled out for praise by OFSTED, the English inspectorate, there might be 20 worth putting on a Scottish roll of honour. Or should there be more, since the inspectorate in Scotland consistently praises the schools it visits and resolutely refuses to denounce any as "failing", which is OFSTED's badge of dishonour? Suffice to say that we do not do things the OFSTED way.

Douglas Osler, the new head-designate of the inspectorate, is unlikely to lead the national television news like Chris Woodhead, his opposite number in the south. Mr Osler's department does not even produce an annual report, OFSTED style. Singling out 20 schools as excellent or improving would be difficult in that inspections take place only at the most every five or seven years and published exam results here are not supposed to lead to league tables of winners and losers.

Different countries, different customs. But is that adequate explanation of the difference in perception about the state of schools? Half the primaries in England and two-fifths of the secondaries are not teaching children to a satisfactory standard, according to OFSTED. No one in Scotland has made claims of that sort. Open the report on any primary or secondary chosen at random and you will find large dollops of praise and a set of recommendations aimed at improving on largely acceptable standards of achievement. Look at the reports of the Assessment of Achievement Programme in language, mathematics and science. Changes in pupil strengths and weaknesses are chronicled but no one could read the reports as an indictment of schools or teachers.

Are our schools better, or are different criteria being applied? Is OFSTED, which is much more detached from government than are the Scottish HMIs, being realistic? Is the Scottish system too cosy and enclosed, and guilty of the "wha's like us" syndrome? No one knows the answers, but parents and others reading the evidence from the south are likely to ask the questions. If they do not, they are part of the parochial problem.

Fortunately, there is evidence that we in Scotland are doing some things right. The "school effectiveness" strategy (see the report on home economics, page two, and John MacBeath's article, TESS2, page five) suggests that steps are being taken to describe, monitor and build on information about what makes a school work. None the less, perhaps there is a degree of slackness in identifying problems. The failure by substantial numbers of children in socially disadvantaged schools to read by the age of seven or eight was not highlighted by the inspectors. In Lothian, it was the chairman of the education committee and councillor for an area with such primaries who uncovered the issue and took action.

On OFSTED's criteria, Scotland is not necessarily entirely in the clear.

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