Save primaries from the sledgehammer

28th February 1997 at 00:00
The first primary school "league tables" are to be published by the Government on March 11. Doubtless, these will be used for another very public "teacher-baiting" session by the national media.

The league tables have been closely preceded by the chief inspector's report which once again reflects damning criticisms of teachers and schools.

What on earth are parents and other interested parties to make of all this? Do they despair at the apparent inadequacy of their children's education, or should they ignore the pronouncements as just more propaganda to flow from an unaccountable Government quango?

Whichever view they take, I hope that the following facts will help at least some to reach a proper judgment.

For several years, the Government made such an unholy mess of the tests that, by common consent, the results were meaningless. Huge annual changes in both questioning and assessment of the children's responses, used up forests of paper, to no useful effect. The fact that the curriculum itself was changed three times in three years was hardly likely to inspire any confidence.

At my own school, for example, there are huge year-on-year variations. 1995 saw us around average for the seven-year-olds, but below average in some areas of the tests set for 11-year-olds.

This year will again doubtless show yet more variation. The reason for these changes can be both many and varied.

Again, from our own experience last year, science results at 11 were disappointing, but a glance at the register for that day revealed that five of our most able children (12.5 per cent of the total) were absent.

None of this is designed to excuse poor teaching. Where such exists, I am right behind the chief inspector in rooting it out and eliminating it.

Unlike the chief inspector, though, I know how long, expensive and debilitating that process can be.

As in all things, it is very easy to talk about a problem, it is another matter to find the means to solve it.

Week after week, we see reports in the local press concerning the latest judgment on schools passed by Government inspectors.

But to what extent do they, or indeed can they truly reflect the effectiveness of the school? After all, what exactly is the difference between "sound", "satisfactory", "good", and "very good"? Unless one has studied the inspectors' own manual it is impossible to form an accurate picture, so the reports themselves are of limited value.

The excellent inspection guidelines themselves are highly beneficial. Used properly by the schools, they can and do result in huge improvement.

The actual inspection, however, achieves almost nothing of a positive nature and a great deal of harmful and counter-productive side-effects.

I am very much in agreement with the drive for higher standards and school improvement. In many cases it is much needed and long overdue. But the sledgehammer approach we are currently subjected to, is quite simply not going to work.

It is negative. It demotivates and even destroys the will of largely honest people who genuinely want to do their very best for children.

There is ample room for school improvement, but this will not be achieved within a climate of fear, which is based on ill-informed public ridicule led by people who should, but clearly do not know any better.

School improvement can happen. It can be rapid, measurable and popular with all concerned.

This would come about when schools are freed from punitive Government legislation and allowed to devise rigorous, but fair systems of their own.

Open to inspection and public scrutiny - certainly. But not to be ruled by it.

CLIVE TAYLOR Headteacher Waterfoot School Rossendale Lancashire

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