The good news about the latest Ofsted report into the nation's schools is that they are, according to the schools' inspectorate, getting better. Some 70 per cent of state primary schools are now rated outstanding or good, which is six per cent up on five years ago – though that still leaves almost 2.3 million children in schools deemed inadequate. What is more problematic is Ofsted's decision to address the continuing problems by shifting its focus from standards in individual failing schools to local education authorities.
For the first time the inspectors have decided to "name and shame" education authorities by ranking them according to the overall quality of education in their area. It is unclear what parents in Coventry, the poorest performing area, are supposed to do with the information that only 42 per cent of their school pupils are attending a good or outstanding school. They can hardly all move to Camden, the best performing area, where 92 per cent of pupils have potential access to such schools. This information which Ofsted intends should empower parents risks having precisely the opposite effect.
School leagues tables have been an important additional tool for parents choosing the right school for their children. They have their limitations; a focus on test results can distract attention from other important markers of children's progress and wellbeing. There is the risk of "teaching to the test" and ignoring the wider dimensions required for a good education. And the past two decades of school inspection have done little to disturb the truism that schools in affluent suburbs tend to do better than those in poorer inner-city areas. But external yardsticks have been an undoubted good.
Ranking education authorities is more tricky. For a start Ofsted includes in its calculations academy schools which lie outside local authority control. Holding a body accountable for the standards in schools over which it has no direct influence clearly throws up all manner of potential anomalies.
Moreover, the Ofsted report says that inconsistency or too much prescription in teaching are almost always at the root of an inadequate school. The responsibility for these factors is far more likely to be laid at the door of the headteacher than the education authority.
Teaching unions incline to the suspicion that the change is designed to provide a lever which the Government can use to push more schools to leave local authorities and become academies. That may be too Machiavellian, though the report does assert that "sponsored academies – with strong leadership and real expertise – are the best way to turn around struggling schools". But the tactic of increasing pressure on local authorities at the bottom of the table could backfire.
It risks further demoralising staff in schools already struggling to attract good teachers. Just as it is a bad idea to label a child early in their school career, risking undermining their self-esteem and resilience, so it may well be counter-productive to label an entire area as some kind of educational sink.
Good schools succeed because they have headteachers who demonstrate faith in their staff and pupils and make clear that high achievement is the aspiration or even the norm. By contrast one of the common factors in failing schools is the low expectations of head and staff alike. The lessons from that should apply in our education authorities too. Naming and shaming could easily be counterproductive. It is not the way forward.