Three questions for the critics of OFSTED's report

8th November 1996 at 00:00
From Jim Rose

Harvey Goldstein and Peter Mortimore have criticised OFSTED's report on the teaching of reading in three London boroughs because:

* it focused on particularly deprived areas, with high levels of non-English speaking families, which were not representative of other urban areas;

* it commented on children's progress although it was a one-off inspection;

* it has unduly influenced subsequent Government policies and actions.

The choice of areas was deliberate and clearly identified in the title of the report. OFSTED never claimed that its findings were applicable nationally or even to all urban areas, although those who choose to ignore some of the wider questions about pedagogy and practice do nobody a service. These critics seem to have forgotten too quickly our widely-accepted report, Access and Achievement in Urban Education, to which this study of reading in three LEAs is closely linked.

They have also conveniently overlooked the fact that the reading report was based on two sets of data: inspection data - collected by HMI and LEA inspectors together - which focused on teaching quality and classroom management rather than pupil outcomes; and data from a reading test independently administered by the National Foundation for Educational Research. The strength of the association between these two sets of data was sufficiently robust to encourage us to write the report as we did. We made judgments about pupils' progress largely from the test data while taking background factors into account.

Anyone who reads the report with an open mind will see that no attempt was made to disguise the large numbers of different ethnic groups in the schools concerned, nor the differences in their performance. But since the findings showed considerable weaknesses in the attainment of particular groups of pupils classified by their schools as "fluent users of English", this is something of a red herring.

Could we have put a more positive spin on our findings? It is always possible to describe the pot as half full rather than half empty. But then it is always possible to be fatally complacent.

The fact is far too many pupils were not receiving the quality of teaching they and their parents had a right to expect and were not making the progress of which they were capable. Moreover, Islington's own earlier reading survey had come to much the same conclusions.

We are constantly reminded that this country, when compared to its economic competitors, suffers from a long tail of low attainment which pulls standards down. While most evidence for that has come from comparative data on pupils' performance in maths, the recent NFEROpen University report Reading at Nine suggest the long tail is also wagging the national performance in reading so forcefully that its authors conclude: "The British educational system pays too little attention to low performers and could and should pay them much more. "

We make no apology for the impact that OFSTED's reports may or may not have on policy-makers. Our findings may sometimes be uncomfortable for people within the educational establishment - sometimes they are none too welcome to the politicians - but their firm rooting in the inspection of what actually happens in the classroom rather than what people say or assume might happen, compels attention.

The questions that Harvey Goldstein and Peter Mortimore need to answer are these: Do they agree that good teaching can prevent reading failure even in the most difficult social and economic circumstances? Do they acknowledge that good teaching of reading has at its core the teaching of phonic knowledge and skill? And finally, if their answers to these questions are affirmative, why on earth are they trying to undermine what OFSTED is doing to give inner city children a better start in life? A better start now - not in five years' time when the academics have pursued their "longitudinal studies" to reach conclusions which are already so obvious.

JIM ROSE Director of Inspection OFSTED, Alexandra House, 33 Kingsway, London WC2.

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