Advisers cross swords on a class improvement act

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The Independent Online
Inspectors yesterday described Birmingham local education authority, a testbed for many Government policies, as "a success story". But, says Judith Judd, Education Editor, the report from the Office for Standards in Education highlights a dispute between two senior government advisers on how to improve schools.

Five years ago, says the report, standards in Birmingham, one of the most deprived areas in the country, were low, teachers were demoralised and had no faith in the local authority.

Now, says the report, test and exam results are rising steadily, teachers are looking for solutions, not problems, and the authority is very well- run.

But the reasons for the improvement are being hotly debated. Professor Tim Brighouse, the authority's charismatic chief education officer, says there is "a conflict of philosophy" between the report and the authority about how schools improve. The report from Ofsted, headed by Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, says higher standards have more to do with Prof Brighouse's leadership than the authority's school-improvement policies. The two men are joint vice-chairmen of the Government's Standards Task Force.

While Prof Brighouse believes that Birmingham's success offers hope for all inner-city areas, the report argues that the city's approach does not provide a model for others, partly because of the chief education officer's inspirational leadership.

Prof Brighouse thinks that bad schools should be dealt with quietly and discreetly, whereas the report appears to support the Government's policy of "naming and shaming" schools.

"It argues that the city "will need to be more open about confronting failure."

Prof Brighouse cites the authority's policy of setting targets for improvement as "a key ingredient" in its success. The report says the policy has little to do with success, because schools did not really understand how the targets worked.

Prof Brighouse said: "This is a really good report and it offers hope for urban areas.Whatever the odds, you can have tremendous rates of improvement if there is political will and good management.

"There is a wider debate about school improvement and there is a conflict of philosophy. It boils down to what is the right mixture of pressure and support for schools."

The report points out that, despite improvements, Birmingham's position in the national league tables remains low - 96 out of 131 at GCSE. It suggests that the authority needs to concentrate on the things it does well and that it may have embarked on too many initiatives.

Inspectors criticise the local authority's policy of asking schools to set targets to improve on their previous best. "Some schools ... were celebrating progress that was at best modest and, very occasionally, entirely spurious." One school hailed an improvement in its prospectus of almost 50 per cent in its GCSE results. This was an increase from 11.5 per cent, getting five or more top grades to 16 per cent, a difference of just nine pupils.

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