David Bell, the chief schools inspector and chief executive of Ofsted - the education standards watchdog - made it clear in his annual report they "could do better". He warned yesterday that there was "no hiding place" for them - a call immediately echoed by ministers, who said the schools would be issued with improvement notices under a tougher inspection regime.
If they were unable to show they had raised standards within a year, they could be classified as failing and would face closure.
Mr Bell's report revealed the number of schools that had actually failed their inspection last year had fallen. By the end of 2004/5 only 1 per cent were on Ofsted's hit list - compared with 1.5 per cent the previous year. However, he added: "Part of my scorecard for inspection as well as for the education system itself says 'could do better.'"
He said 60 per cent of failing schools had been ranked good or better in subsequent inspections.
"Where I think Ofsted has been less effective is in ensuring that sufficient attention is given to those schools which, while not in a state of crisis, are providing nothing better than mediocrity," he added.
Ten per cent of schools - which would mean 2,500 in the state sector - had failed to show sufficient improvement. "While on the surface all may appear to be well in these schools, if we dig deeper we find that achievement could be better in some subjects, or for some groups of pupils," Mr Bell said. "These schools are falling way behind in terms of providing the sort of education we find in our best schools: in short, they are underperforming or 'coasting' schools."
Mr Bell said these schools were as likely to be found in the leafy suburbs as in the inner cities.
His report also warned that primary schoolchildren struggling to read and write were in danger of spending too much time with a classroom assistant. This casts a shadow over a much trumpeted government initiative - giving teachers the guarantee of ten per cent of their time away from the classroom for marking and preparation and allowing lessons to be taken by classroom assistants.
The report said: "Many low-attaining pupils spend considerable time being taught by classroom assistants who do not have the subject knowledge needed to adapt work sufficiently so that pupils are sufficiently challenged."
Mr Bell said pupils were effectively "de-coupled" from their teacher, which could be damaging.
Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, which opposed the initiative, said: "We have consistently warned the Government that classroom assistants can't substitute for teachers."
Mr Sinnott warned Mr Bell he had to be "very careful with his use of language".
"Mediocrity is a word which is as damning as failure," he said.
The report did contain some good news for the Government. This included:
* Only 7 per cent of secondary schools were considered unsatisfactory - compared with 10 per cent last year.
* Behaviour - an issue highlighted last year when Mr Bell warned that constant low-level disruption was contributing to teachers leaving the profession - has improved and is satisfactory in the majority of schools.
* In more than half of primary schools, provision on the core subjects of maths and English had improved significantly.
* Attendance had also improved.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills described it as "encouraging" that attention was not being focused on failing schools as their numbers had been significantly reduced.
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