Exactly who is failing whom?

The `failing' label has taken hold in education when it is absent elsewhere. Hospitals are not failed. Nor are prisons, let alone government departments

WHEN THE Government named and shamed a south London school that had failed its inspection, a local shop put up a sign saying: "No Dulwich High School boys here." Pupils from the school who talked on a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, the Learning Curve, had no doubt that they, as well as the school, had been branded failures.

"The Government shouldn't have actually put a name to shamed schools because people think that our character is bad," said one.

"My friend was saying like: `Oh you go to that failing school,'" complained another.

It is, of course, not meant to be like this. Politicians emphasise again and again that schools are failing and children are being failed. But the reality is less simple than that. Is the school failing because the head is bad? Often. Is it failing because the senior management is also bad? Sometimes. Is it failing because all the teachers are bad? No. Almost certainly they are a mixed bag. Is it failing because the children are bad? The official answer is `no, of course not'. But in practice, failing schools tend to have a majority of pupils from deprived and difficult backgrounds.

Both this government and the last have proved staunch defenders of the policy that the bottom line of school inspection is "failure", though this one has abandoned the idea that the worst offenders should be "named and shamed" nationally by politicians. Only by labelling schools "failing" - the euphemism is "in special measures" - can they ensure that drastic steps are taken to turn round those which give children the worst deal, they say. In short, they back the label because they believe it works.

But does it? MPs on the Commons Education and Employment Committee - who next week begin an investigation into the Office for Standards in Education - should ask the question. So far, 715 schools have been failed and more than 150 have been turned round - on average it takes about two years. There is no way of knowing for certain whether the good done by failing a school outweighs the harm.

Yet there are some pointers. Dr Kathryn Riley and her colleagues from Roehampton Institute in London examined the effect of the "failing" label in a recent study and found that it was counter-productive. Teachers were so demoralised that they were paralysed into inaction. Schools moved on, the study found, not because of what happened in the inspection but when they received a big injection of resources and strong support from their local authorities. Dr Riley argued for earlier intervention.

A "failing" school is a peculiarly British idea. No other Western country uses the concept as we do, perhaps because it is so difficult to decide how failure should be measured. How do you compare a school in a middle- class suburb with one in the poorest part of inner-city Manchester? Ministers have promised to root out hidden failure in affluent areas but most schools which fail are struggling against the odds. As one grammar school teacher asked me: "How do you fail a special school?"

In Britain, the "failing" label has taken hold in education when it is absent elsewhere. Hospitals are not failed. Nor are prisons, let alone government departments.

Bad schools, like bad prisons, need to be told that they are bad. They also need to be regularly inspected with the backing of the sort of national framework devised by Ofsted. But regular inspection and fear of a critical report concentrate minds wonderfully. Inspection reports are published and must be made available to parents. That is enough.

As one of the pupils interviewed by the Learning Curve put it: "They should see beyond the failing people. Give them more help - just help the school generally."

It's time to take the phrase "failing school" out of the national vocabulary.

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