Where do you stand?;Opinion

5th June 1998 at 01:00
Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead attacks the view that poor educational performance is inevitable in deprived areas

A MORE sober editor might have eschewed the sensationalism of recent TES headlines as "'Unjust' OFSTED drove head from job", "Judgment in the dock": the issues raised are nevertheless important.

Is the Office for Standards in Education getting it wrong? Are we failing schools which are doing well given the nature of the communities they serve? Conversely, are our judgments on leafy suburban primary schools rigorous enough? And, lurking beneath the surface, what is it reasonable to expect of schools where a high percentage of children are eligible for free school meals? To what extent, in fact, do any of us think schools can make a difference?

The Secretary of State thinks they can. Interviewed last Sunday on The World this Weekend, his incredulity was obvious. Why, he asked, should anyone think that working class kids are ineducable? Most parents listening shared, I imagine, his frustration. I did.

Let us start with a fact. It is not only - or even mainly - primary schools with deprived intakes which fail inspections. Failed primary schools are to be found right across the social spectrum. This is one reason why, to quote Nicholas Pyke last week in The TES, OFSTED believes that "the roots of education failure lie in poor teaching methods rather than poor social circumstances". If school failure were to be an exclusively inner-city phenomenon, then the latter explanation might be more likely. But it is not.

Let us reflect, too, that some schools serving the most appallingly disadvantaged communities do remarkably well by their pupils. If they can do it, why can't others? Their success torpedoes the comforting determinism of those who want to believe it is is all down to poverty and deprivation.

Why, moreover, should a child who is eligible for a free school dinner find it harder to learn to read than a child who comes from an affluent, middle-class home? The middle-class child might have been taught to read before beginning school, and might have more parental support.

But I agree with Diane McGuinness, author of the recently-published book Why Children Can't Read: "Everyone can learn to read unless they are mentally retarded." The problem is not that poor children are too stupid, but rather that poor teaching coupled with a lack of parental support means that they do not make the progress they should.

I put this deliberately starkly because it is the crunch issue. We can discuss why too much teaching is ineffective. But, in the end, we all have to decide where we stand. Can teachers make a difference? Or are the social odds too high? Where, reader, do you stand?

Where, indeed, does The TES stand? I can hear the reply already. It is not, I will be told, an eitheror. Teachers can make a difference, but those working inn inner-cities will find it very much harder than their peers in the suburbs. I agree.

I agree, too, that inspectors have on occasion taken good test results in schools serving prosperous communities too much at face value. We may need to raise our expectations of such schools. What we must not do is lower our expectations of the inner-city school. OFSTED inspectors need to use the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority benchmark data, buy with great discretion.

They need above all, of course, to come to the right conclusion. By and large, they do. Last year just over 7,000 schools were inspected. I am not going to pretend that every judgment was exactly right. But I am pretty sure that the overall judgments on failing schools, which our own HMI corroborate, were right. And I am absolutely certain that Lewisham Bridge School, which featured twice in last week's TES, is a failing school.

It has always been OFSTED's policy not to discuss an individual school publicly, and I do so now with reluctance. But when a publication like The TES chooses to identify a school in this way, I am left with little choice.

The test results do indeed show that 54 per cent of pupils at this school reached level 4 in English, which is below the national figure, but above that for schools in the similar free meal band. I agree with The TES leader that the benchmarks should not be taken as gospel truths, and I believe that the overall inspection evidence has to be taken into account.

Let us look at some of the main findings in Lewisham Bridge's inspection. Teaching was judged to be unsatisfactory in one-third of lessons, nearly three times the national figure. Pupils are making unsatisfactory progress in most subjects at both key stages.

The standard of behaviour was unsatisfactory. Parents were concerned at incidents of poor behaviour in the playground. The provision and use of resources is poor.

The school fails to keep or use suitable records of attendance. The headteacher did not offer proper curriculum leadership.

Given these weaknesses, does anyone blame parents for expressing their concerns? Would Nicholas Pyke be happy to send his children to this school?

The TES does no one any favours by arguing that a discrepancy between test results and inspection judgments means that both are flawed. Inspection is not perfect. Benchmarking is not a science. The point, though, is that inspection looks at the totality of the school's work, taking nothing for granted. On occasion, it is absolutely right that there should be a disjunction.

Lewisham Bridge, whatever The TES might think, is an excellent example of where to have relied solely on one statistic would have been to ignore parental concerns and betray children who deserve better.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today