Opinion / Who hijacked our inspectors' report? A headteacher writes

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The Independent Online
An inspectors' report into reading standards in a group of inner London schools last week revealed four out of five 7-year-olds and four out of ten 11-year-olds had reading ages below their chronological age. The headlines roared of trendy teachers letting children down.

Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, said the report on Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets showed that teachers were committed to teaching reading by methods that were clearly not working. She went on to announce plans for performance league tables for teacher training colleges and to give inspectors powers to carry out their own tests in poor schools.

But as the headteacher of one of those schools who feature in this report I know that its purpose was not to produce a stick to break across the back of hard-working and dedicated teachers. The purpose was to draw attention to those methods and policies which contribute to measurable improvements in reading standards in the diverse circumstances of inner-city schools. Somewhere along the way the purpose was hijacked to suit the government's message.

The original draft represented findings jointly arrived at by HMI and local authority inspectors. The original draft report was critical but fair. Why then did the Director of the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), Jim Rose, invite representatives at such short notice to Ofsted and present them with a new 70-page report? Why were the representatives given barely 30 minutes to read it, no opportunity to negotiate over the content, not allowed to take the document away to read it properly, and denied access to the printed version and press release before the press launch?

Crucial paragraphs were changed. One which referred to good teaching in two thirds of lessons was altered to say that teaching was bad in a third - a critical difference of emphasis.

Many of the passages from the original report on reading had been watered down or removed from the final report. Why was the final version presented to the three local authorities such a travesty of the originally proposed "closely co-operative exercise"?

Why did HMIs contact the schools involved the day after the Conservative Party conference speech last September in which John Major proposed to send HMIs into schools thought to be failing in the teaching of reading? The HMIs were surprised and shocked by the speech and tried to reassure schools that their understanding of the exercise was not the same as the Prime Minister's. Imagine the fear and anger of schools who had been led to believe and trust the HMI. Consider the reassurance needed for parents, teachers and most important, the children themselves.

My school is in one of the most deprived areas of western Europe. That has an effect on how quickly children learn to read. Are local authorities and schools solely responsible for the social and economic deprivations, lack of resources, poor morale, recruitment, retention, quantity and quality of the teaching staff, the children and parents?

In my view Ofsted has failed to succeed in what it set out to achieve. Its intentions seem neither honourable nor supportive. It has failed to find methods that assist inner-city schools to improve standards of literacy and to remind the public that poverty, bilingualism and staff turnover are beyond the control of schools, and where schools face a mixture of these issues their task is particularly difficult.

The intakes of most of the schools involved represent some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country. Some schools are not sufficiently well resourced. Some teachers feel let down by their initial training and do not have access or opportunity to improve their teaching skills.

Many hardworking, committed inner-city teachers feel justifiably offended, angry, anxious, unsupported, undervalued, discouraged by such appalling Ofsted treatment. Is it surprising that the recruitment and retention of school leaders is an increasing concern to governors, parents and local authorities? Ofsted has the right to make professional judgements but they also have responsibilities to report fairly.

Teachers have feelings. If there continues to be constant condemnation and emphasis on weaknesses, then our children are inevitably affected. If there is mistrust, and breakdown in relationships amongst all the interested parties, children will feel less secure and learning is bound to suffer. How do you feel if you or your child receives a report which in its original format is fair and identifies strengths and weaknesses but is changed to suit the needs of others? An unjustified, poor report for a child will not inspire confidence and self-worth. Similarly, a report on the teaching of reading that has been meddled with at the last moment by those who seek to score political points will do nothing to inspire excellent teachers to stay in our schools.

The writer has to remain anonymous because schools in the Ofsted survey are meant to be unidentified.