The drive to raise standards in the three Rs is stagnating, the chief schools inspector, David Bell, said yesterday.
Mr Bell, the head of Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, said in his annual report that primary school test results had reached a plateau. "The results have not improved for several years," he said. "We must look at what needs to be done to restore momentum."
His report said that primary schoolchildren were threatened with a "two-tier curriculum", where the gap between teaching standards in the three core subjects of maths, English and science and other subjects was widening.
Only two-fifths of England's 21,000 primary schools covered the core subjects "in a broad and balanced way", it said. In one out of 10 schools teachers' expectations were "too low and the work fails to challenge the pupils, particularly the most able, who frequently have too little demanded of them".
Mr Bell, whose report was based on inspections of nearly 4,000 of the 24,000 primary and secondary schools, said: "There are primary schools that successfully combine a rich curriculum with high standards across the board. But, equally, for many schools this is proving to be a tall order."
The findings cast a shadow over the success story of Tony Blair's first term - raising the number of pupils reaching the required literacy and numeracy standards for 11-year-olds from 55 per cent to 75 per cent.
The report, which marks the tenth anniversary of Ofsted, revealed the number of schools failing their inspection and on the "hit list" for special measures had increased last year for the first time since 1997. A total of 160 schools failed, compared with 129 the previous year. However, the fact that 25 schools were given a clean bill of health by inspectors meant the overall total rose by six. Inspectors have also raised the bar for schools to pass their inspections - failing them if 10 per cent of lessons are less than satisfactory compared with 20 per cent previously.
In secondary schools, Mr Bell acknowledged that the pass rate at GCSE and in national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds had improved but warned there were still "wide variations in the achievement of different groups of pupils". The worst performers were white boys and pupils of Black Caribbean heritage.
Teacher shortages were still affecting some schools - notably in deprived areas and London and the South-east. "Unsatisfactory behaviour is often associated with high staff turnover," the report said.
However, behaviour - a source of concern in the past - had improved with one in 20 schools showing cause for concern compared to one in 12 in the previous year. Attendance had also improved with the number of absences dropping from 8.7 per cent to 8.3 per cent.
David Miliband, the minister for School Standards, said the report had made "a compelling case for reform". However, he said it was more difficult to raise the numbers reaching the required standards in numeracy and literacy from the present level of 73 and 75 per cent respectively to the Government's target of 85 per cent. "It gets harder the nearer you get to 85 per cent," he said.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Test results will not improve nor will schools deliver a broad and balanced curriculum simply because they are exhorted to do so by the chief inspector.
"He would have done better to have recognised that the funding crisis and the lack of resources in schools is a major block on progress. He wills the ends but not the means."
A MIXED REPORT FOR EDUCATION
* Standards in tests for 11-year-olds have stagnated.
* The gap in achievement between English, maths and science and other subjects is widening in primaries.
* Only two-fifths of primaries deliver a broad, balanced curriculum and teach core subjects effectively.
* The number of schools failed in the past year rose 25 per cent: 129 to 160.
* White boys and pupils of Black Caribbean heritage still fall behind in secondaries.
* The new, more flexible national curriculum - with 14 to 16-year-olds allowed up to two days out of school a week for work experience or college - has increased motivation and achievement.
* Behaviour has improved, with only one in 20 schools unsatisfactory compared to one in 12 last year.
* Teacher recruitment and retention is still a problem, particularly in London.
* The number of permanent exclusions has risen in one in three local education authorities, and fixed-term exclusions in almost all.
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