Our failing schools: one in eight children gets sub-standard education

Official report says one million children attend poorly performing schools
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More than a million children are receiving a sub-standard education because they are forced to attend poorly performing schools, the National Audit Office warns today.

About one in eight pupils in England is being denied a decent education despite £1bn spent by ministers on attempts to improve struggling schools last year.

Unpublished government figures revealed by today's NAO report show that at least 980,000 children are being taught in 1,557 primary and secondary schools officially classified as "poorly performing". But the auditors warn that the true figure could be much higher, arguing that the Department for Education and Skills has yet to identify all sub-standard primary schools.

The report comes as the Government prepares to publish its Education Bill based on the controversial White Paper proposals which have already prompted threats of a Labour backbench rebellion. The proposals aim to raise standards by giving schools more freedom to run their own admissions but will also try to crack down on failing schools by threatening them with closure if they remain on the failing list for more than a year.

Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough and chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, which received the NAO report, said he was horrified that so many children were still being let down by their schools. "It is tragic that so many pupils are still not getting the education they deserve.

"Schools should not be allowed to get into difficulty in the first place. But if they do, speedy recovery is vital," he said. "Local authorities, Ofsted and the Department for Education and Skills must act faster either to get these schools to improve or close them before their pupils' chances in life are ruined."

The NAO report finds that there has been some improvements and says several government initiatives are showing signs of paying off. The number of schools on Ofsted's failing list fell by half between 1998 and 2005 while the number of persistently low-achieving schools also dropped.

However, the NAO estimates that 1,577 schools in England are still performing poorly - representing about 4 per cent of primary schools and 23 per cent of secondaries. Schools are classified as "performing poorly" if they have been described as failing or having serious weaknesses by Ofsted or judged to be under-performing by the DfES.

The previously unpublished data from the DfES on poor performers includes 402 primary and secondary schools where national test or GCSE results were exceptionally low.

But it also includes 578 "coasting" secondary schools which ministers believe are under-performing given their circumstances even though their raw GCSE scores may not appear particularly low. In total, these struggling schools teach about 980,000 pupils, or 13 per cent of the total school population in England, the NAO says.

Angela Hands, the report's author, said if the DfES applied the same criteria to under-performing primaries as secondaries, the figure would rise to well over one million pupils.

The NAO says it is "totally unacceptable" that one in five schools takes more than two years to improve enough to be taken off Ofsted's failing list. Some failing schools take more than four years to recover, the auditors note. "The longer a school takes to turn around, the longer its pupils suffer a poor education, and the more damage is done to the school's reputation, making recovery even more difficult," the report warns.

It also questions struggling schools' long-term chances of recovery, noting that 40 per cent of schools which came off the failing list in the mid-1990s have since closed.

The report, Improving Poorly Performing Schools in England, also finds it is "too early" to say whether Tony Blair's city academies programme for replacing failing comprehensives with new privately sponsored schools will provide value for money.

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, said: "It is unacceptable for any school to carry on providing a poor education over a period that can take up a large part of a child's school career and deprive them of future prospects and opportunity." David Willetts, the shadow Education Secretary, said the report was "powerful evidence that the quality of education in too many of our schools is sub-standard".

Jacqui Smith, the Schools minister, defended the Government's record. "We have more than halved the number of failing schools from 515 to 242, but this is still 242 too many," she said. "That is why our White Paper will further raise the bar on performance. No school will be allowed to languish in special measures, with any school failing to show improvement after 12 months facing closure. New inspection arrangements will ensure that coasting is no longer an option, schools will only be deemed good if they demonstrate continuing improvement and parents will have new rights to trigger Ofsted inspections."