Simply the best at being distinctly average

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Most of us are about average. We will start, progress through and end our careers much the same as everyone else. This is not a harsh value judgment, it is just the way the statistics crumble. No one likes to see themselves as average. We like to feel exceptional, but average, through the sheer force of mathematical logic, most of us are certain to be.

Yet if we examine the latest Office for Standards in Education figures, being average is not as bad as it first appears. The majority of modern foreign language lessons were very good or excellent, as were the majority of PE lessons. In fact, the proportion of very good or excellent lessons has risen by 16 percentage points over the past seven years. This should leave the average teacher feeling pretty smug - they are now officially very good or excellent. But for Charles Clarke, with a perversity known only to Secretaries of State for Education, these statistics were not a cause for celebration. In a speech to the General Teaching Council for England last week, he claimed improvements in the quality of teaching since Labour came to power had been "hit and miss". He pointed, for example, to the fact that while history had made a 21 percentage point rise in achieving very good or excellent lessons, design and technology had achieved only an eight-point increase. He believed that the general upward trend in good lessons disguised pockets of poor practice. The general thrust of his speech was indicative of a potentially much greater problem for teachers than simply saying to one subject group: "Your distribution curve looks better than theirs". The dilemma now facing the profession is that as standards inexorably improve, what once seemed perfectly acceptable now looks like failure.

Chief inspector David Bell now takes a dim view of lessons that are deemed satisfactory. With a curious semantic sleight of hand, satisfactory, which ought to mean "does the job", now has a distinctly pejorative feel. Even good has lost its gloss. Only very good or excellent will do.

Such a shift may cast light on why so many more schools are entering special measures under the new Ofsted guidelines, in particular schools which, to all outward appearances, were doing well. Instead of being content with generally good performance, inspectors are now rooting out poor practice. And so, in a way, they should. But it is the effect this has on the overall statistics of the inspection that makes it such a damaging trend.

One teacher can generate a disproportionate amount of bad lessons. Under the new regime, ineffective teachers are revisited more often than those who have performed well, so skewing the percentage of failing lessons observed. Once more Ofsted has become a process which dwells on the bad rather than the good in teaching.

David Bell is no Chris Woodhead and Clarke is not David Blunkett. Both men appear to have a more reflective engagement with the complexity of education; both have been prepared to ask difficult questions about previous policy with a view to changing it, and both seemed able to appear tough without being punitive. It would be a pity if that were to change.

No one wants complacency, but the flaw in permanent revolution, to which New Labour seems so wedded, is that instead of moving forward you just end up feeling dizzy. Perhaps this is why they seem so muddle-headed statistically. We all want all lessons to be very good or excellent, but by the time that happens, the average will be exceptional and the gifted few mind-blowing. We simply can't all be the best.

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