Simply the best solution?

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Chief inspector David Bell introduces three pages devoted to special measures. Inside we look at two schools that have benefited from an inspectoral rap over the knuckles

Our college was placed in special measures two years ago and has received regular inspections by Her Majesty's inspectors throughout this period.

These inspections have supported the establishment of very rigorous systems of monitoring and self- evaluation which now provide a firm basis for our college's continuous improvement. This will stand us in good stead for years to come."

So wrote the headteacher of a secondary school in a letter to me recently.

Her reflections are typical of those of the governors, headteachers and staff of many of the schools that have been subject to special measures.

Special measures sometimes attract adverse publicity, but they work.

From the introduction of the system in 1993 to the end of last school year, 1,098 schools had been successfully removed from special measures. These were schools that had been struggling, and letting down pupils. Would they all have improved so rapidly without special measures? I doubt it. Was their improvement just a quick fix? No, because most of these schools carried on improving. Out of the 1,098, only 2 per cent slipped back into special measures for a second time, because of the intractable problems that they faced. More typical were the majority of former special measures schools that were judged to be good when inspected two years after the removal of special measures. More impressive yet, some of these had become very good indeed. Fourteen of the particularly successful schools listed in my latest annual report were former special measures schools. This is testimony to the enthusiasm, insight and sheer hard work of the people working in those schools, but it also shows that special measures really did stand them in good stead. What is more, the staff who work in schools in special measures develop skills that they take with them when they move on to other schools. One of our HMI encountered this recently, in unexpected circumstances. He interviewed a well-regarded subject co-ordinator in a high-achieving primary school, and was a little disconcerted when he realised that he had made this member of staff's previous school subject to special measures. Did the co-ordinator harbour any lingering resentment about this? On the contrary, she was eloquent about the improvements that had occurred and said that she was now helping her new school to apply the methods that had helped to take her previous one out of special measures.

Special measures sometimes receive adverse publicity because they are seen as too punitive and draconian. I do recognise that they can involve some pain. No one who cares about pupils and their education enjoys hearing the judgment that their school is failing to provide an acceptable standard of education. It can be discomforting and demoralising in the short term. But making a school subject to special measures is like drawing a line in the sand: it is saying that the education at this school is not good enough and not only can and should, but must and will improve - and rapidly. Sometimes this is greeted with relief: now, at last, things will change. Sometimes the response is denial: this can't be happening to our school. Moving from the stage where the talk is all of failure to the stage where it is all about improvement and progress: this is a key part of the process, and it needs to happen as quickly as possible. For the staff, it is about no longer wanting to leave a school that they feel has been stigmatised and being proud of the part they are playing in turning it round.

Special measures work because they concentrate minds and involve a higher level of both support and accountability. The local education authority has a duty to support the school and its support is subject to critical scrutiny. HMI usually visits the school termly, and assesses the actions taken by the school and their impact. It is, of course, the impact that really matters: special measures are about making a difference, not just going through the motions.

Through the termly evaluations, HMI charts the school's improvement and helps to guide it to the point where special measures can be removed. If improvement stalls, the LEA can intervene further or the Secretary of State can use his powers of intervention. In a minority of cases the school is not viable or the judgment is made that the pupils' interests will be best served by its closure.

Of course, the time taken to reach the point where special measures are no longer required varies, but every school in the category that remains open gets there in the end, and some get there very rapidly. And who benefits most of all? The pupils. The evidence shows that, following special measures, they are educated in better led and managed schools, receive better teaching, and achieve higher standards. They deserve no less.

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