Inspectors and heads slam 'demoralising' targets

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The Independent Online

Tension between the Government and its chief inspector of schools has been growing for months over the toughest targets yet for England's poorest performing schools.

Tension between the Government and its chief inspector of schools has been growing for months over the toughest targets yet for England's poorest performing schools.

The festering argument between Chris Woodhead and David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, boiled over yesterday as league tables confirmed that 101 schools could face closure if they do not hit new government targets.

Ironically, the schools inspectorate, the scourge of bad teaching and low exam scores, maintained there was "more to a good school than exam results" as ministers insisted their targets would stay in place. Inspectors defended standards at dozens of low-performing comprehensives as news emerged that nearly four out of five ofthe schools with the worst GCSE scores had passed their inspections.

Ofsted echoed complaints by headteachers that David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, had cast a pall over 101 schools where fewer than 15 per cent of pupils gained five good GCSE passes.

Under new GCSE targets imposed by Mr Blunkett, the schools may be closed and reopened under new management if they fail to hit the 15 per cent threshold in the next two years. Of the 101 schools affected by the "three-strikes and you're out" policy, only 16 are on the list of schools in "special measures" after being failed by Ofsted. Another nine have already been given a Fresh Start, although two were later put back on the failing list. The rest have passed their inspections, although some, such as the Ridings in Halifax, have been approved after coming off the list of failing schools.

Schools scoring less than 15 per cent include the Islington Arts and Media School, Firfield Community School in Newcastle and East Brighton College of Media Arts, which all lost high-profile "superheads" in a series of resignations earlier this year.

Some are in inner-city areas of London, Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham. But examples of low performance are also spread across counties such as Kent and Essex.

Mr Woodhead, who resigned earlier this month, and his senior inspectors have expressed deep reservations ever since Mr Blunkett announced the targets - in effect the policy of "three strikes and you're out" in March. They have privately accused Mr Blunkett of ignoring inspection evidence and imposing arbitrary targets.

Senior sources in the Government, however, insist that the targets are fair and achievable, given widespread and in many cases considerable improvements in standards among children leaving primary school.

Headteachers attacked the targets, saying they would demoralise schools and damage their chances of recruiting staff and students.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the 15 per cent target damaged the morale of staff and pupils. "Heads who have just been appointed to turn round some of these schools must be in despair. Highly successful heads are going to be wary of going to these schools," he said.

A spokeswoman for Ofsted said: "Exam results alone do not put a school into or take it out of special measures. Inspections look at more than the achievement of five A*-C grades. These include the number of pupils not entered for any GCSEs and the number getting A*-G grades.

"The proportion of A*-C grades can take a while to improve because the older pupils will have spent more of their time in education provided by a school where the standard of education was unacceptable."

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The tables victimise schools that are working against the odds to overcome background factors, which impact on pupil performance. Schools that have to work to overcome, for example, socio-economic deprivation, disillusion with education fed by low expectations among parents, high levels of homelessness, do not get the credit they deserve in these tables."

Despite the reservations, some heads are optimistic that the targets will be met.

William Atkinson, head of the Phoenix School in west London where 12 per cent of pupils scored five good grades, said that he welcomed the Government's decision to take refugees whose first language was not English out of the tables. This year, 36 per cent of 14-year-olds reached the expected standard in English compared with 7 per cent two years ago.

"There is no reason why we shouldn't be up to 20 per cent by 2002 but this is conditional upon our ability to recruit enough teachers. I have six vacancies that are being covered by supply teachers."