More than half of secondary schools are failing pupils

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More than half the country's secondary schools are still failing to deliver a good standard of education, inspectors say.

Yesterday's annual report by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, shows nearly two million children in England are being taught in schools that fall short of the Government's standards.

Nearly one in seven - 13 per cent - of secondary schools were described as "inadequate" by inspectors. A further 38 per cent were labelled "satisfactory", but the chief schools inspector, Christine Gilbert, made it clear that inspectors did not consider satisfactory to be good enough.

The verdict of the "state of the nation" report - which comes nine years after Tony Blair declared his top priorities to be "education, education and education" - will leave a blot on his legacy in his last full year in office. The figures mean the percentage of secondary schools labelled "inadequate" was almost double last year's tally of 7 per cent.

The trend in primary schools was similar with 7 per cent described as "inadequate" this year compared with just four in 2005. Overall, 8 per cent were inadequate and four out of 10 offered a "less than good" education.

Ms Gilbert, who was criticised for being one of "Tony's cronies" on her appointment (she is the wife of the Home Office minister Tony McNulty) insisted: "More needs to be done, and swiftly, to reduce the number of secondary schools found to be inadequate." She said the "report card" on education over the past 10 years should read "still not good enough".

Ms Gilbert, a former secondary head and director of education in Tower Hamlets, east London, added: "I have witnessed the liberation and empowerment realised by young people who achieved success in literacy and numeracy. That is why I am so concerned at the gap between the best provision and that which makes an inadequate contribution to improving the life chances of children and young people."

She stressed inspectors had "raised the bar" by making inspections tougher this year but said it was not "out of reach".

"If we want a world-class education service it is right that our inspection judgements should be tougher than ever," she said.

"It is unacceptable that one in 12 of our schools proved to be inadequate in the last year. My aspiration is that all our schools are good and I would share the view of my predecessor [David Bell, now Permanent Under-Secretary at the Department for Education and Skills] that satisfactory is not good enough."

The report was immediately seized upon by David Willetts, the Tory education spokesman, who said it indicated "a raw deal for the nation's children". He said: "It is still not good enough that four out of 10 schools are regarded by Ofsted as merely satisfactory or downright inadequate. By the Government's own measure, more than half of secondary schools are not good enough."

Sarah Teather, for the Liberal Democrats, said: "Labour is letting down all those pupils who rely on these failing schools to give them a fair start in life."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, called on Ofsted to "abandon its fascination with failure and adopt a fresh start for itself - as it has recommended so many times for so many schools". She added: "Year-on-year comparisons are meaningless as each year the goalposts change."

Ms Gilbert said lack of leadership and poor teaching were the main reasons for schools being labelled inadequate. She said: "I've read reports about schools in special measures [failing] and there's not one that's been positive about [their] management," she said. The second reason was exacerbated by difficulties in recruiting specialist teachers - particularly in science, maths and technology.

On behaviour, the report said that - while it was inadequate in only 3 per cent of secondary schools (fewer than last year) - in almost a third it was "no better than satisfactory". In these schools, it added, "there are also instances of disruptive and distracting behaviour from some pupils".

Jon Wright, headteacher, Central Lancaster High School: 'It has taken blood, sweat and tears'

In 1999, Central Lancaster High School was declared to have serious weaknesses after a damning report by Ofsted inspectors.

Results at the 650-pupil comprehensive were below average, teaching was weak and leadership was poor. But the school was celebrating yesterday after being praised by the education watchdog as one of just 100 "outstanding" secondaries in the country seen by inspectors this year.

Since 2000, the school's GCSE results have risen by 75 per cent and it has become the most over-subscribed school in its area. This summer, 53 per cent of pupils achieved five or more GCSE passes, compared to 30 per cent in 2000 - a remarkable achievement for a school in an area where grammar schools inevitably cream off many of the brightest children.

Jon Wright, the headteacher since 2001, said: "There is no magic wand. It has meant a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears. Our ethos is what I believe has delivered the improvement. We are all about people, not structures."

But Mr Wright said he could understand why many struggling schools found it difficult to improve. "It is hard for schools to move on after experiencing problems because they are having to constantly deal with so many educational changes. Last year alone we had to cope with a staffing restructuring and a new Ofsted inspection regime," he said.

Although previously Central Lancaster was forced to fill its places with students who had been turned away from their first-choice schools, this year 188 children competed for just 130 places. It now draws students from a 10-mile radius and from 36 feeder primary schools.

Sarah Cassidy