Why the struggle will continue

26th May 1995 at 01:00
The resident TES Office for Standards in Education agony aunt, Bill Laar, is rather sanguine (TES, May 12) about the small matter of OFSTED teams wrongly condemning schools as "failing" and then having their errors spotted by those real experts in failure, Her Majesty's Inspectorate. He feels that, ". . . in the strictest sense, there should be no damage done to the school's reputation in the community . . ."

One cannot help wondering how long ago, if ever, Bill Laar was directly accountable for, or suffered personally as a result of, a school's reputation in the community?

People with a vested interest in the continuation of this OFSTED nonsense will tell you that an inspection can be a positive experience. Try telling that to the staff, governors, parents and students of Breeze Hill School, Oldham.

What happened to them, and this could happen to any school, was that a team of OFSTED inspectors gave the school a reasonable and balanced report and then, some time later, when the school had made further progress (even when judged against limited and misleading criteria such as "truancy rates" and "exam results") a small team of HMI descended and decided that the school was, after all, failing.

Thirteen inspectors made up the OFSTED team, whereas there were only five in the HMI team. The OFSTED inspection team spent 45 inspector days in the school, the HMI team just eight. OFSTED interviewed 67 staff, HMI interviewed 12. OFSTED considered parents' views and examined samples of pupils' work in detail, HMI did not. OFSTED were presented with 20 kilos of school documents and policies, HMI only saw a proportion of these. OFSTED observed teaching and learning in all subject areas, HMI did not.

Attendance rates, exam results and staying-on rates were all improving and there was a decrease in exclusions. Yet HMI branded as "failing" a school which had satisfied OFSTED inspectors a few months before.

I am greatly encouraged by the knowledge that so many people who work in schools understand that "the problem of failing schools" is an intellectually bankrupt, Centre for Policy Studies phrase which should be consigned to the dustbin of history, along with all those education ministers who have been so stimulated by it.

Yet even Professor Michael Barber, to judge by his TESGreenwich lecture (TES May 12), now appears to be dabbling in scapegoating. He assures us that "several" failing schools have been found in Norfolk. How many? Are they in the prosperous parts of the county? What proportion of "failing schools" are in deprived urban areas? How many suburban schools have been branded as failures because only 50 per cent of their intake have achieved five or more higher grades?

Everybody should be capable of understanding that attendance rates, behaviour and exam performance can be adversely affected by, among other things, poverty, disrupted and dysfunctional families, unemployment, child abuse, crime, premature death of a family member, urban decay, illegal child labour, drug abuse and violence.

These are all factors over which schools have little control. How then can anyone justify the public pillorying of schools whose "performance" is affected by these factors? You might as well blame a geriatric hospital for not producing Olympic champions. Thank God we still have people like Tim Brighouse around to suggest, as he did in his paper to the Secondary Heads Association conference, that some urban schools should attract twice as much funding as schools in the most salubrious areas.

The whole elaborate and prodigiously costly OFSTED exercise was intended to identify failing schools. It's a grotesque sledgehammer designed (by some real nuts) to crack an imaginary nut. How many OFSTED survivor schools would claim that all the time, effort, expense and stress had been worthwhile, that the exercise had really moved the school on?

"All that is required for the triumph of evil is that good men (and women) do nothing." Thanks are due to Michael Barber for coining the phrase "struggling schools" because, as any teacher will tell you, "we are all struggling schools" now, and that will make a fine slogan. It's time to speak up and fight back for the sake of all our schools, all our children, and all our futures.

Phil Taylor is head of South Manchester High School

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