Leading article: Missing the grade

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The Independent Online

It was Christine Gilbert's first report as chief inspector of schools, and the last Ofsted report to be published while Tony Blair is at No. 10. As such, its conclusions should be chastening. The legacy of this Prime Minister, who promised that his top three priorities would be "education, education, education", is a system in which more than half the country's secondary schools are failing to provide pupils with education of a good standard.

Nine years ago, when Mr Blair first made his commitment, it would have been the stuff of nightmares to suggest that this would be the final word of the education standards watchdog on his two-and-a-half terms in office. There are factors that can be offered in mitigation. This year's report covers the first 12 months of a new - and tougher - inspection regime, which was introduced to reflect improving standards. As Ms Gilbert observed, however, the bar has not been raised to a point where schools should not be able to succeed.

So what has gone wrong? The chief inspector put her finger on two key problems: poor leadership and poor teaching - which are pretty basic components of school quality. Clearly both need to be addressed. One reason why leadership is poor is that fewer teachers now aspire to headships. This is partly because pay for classroom teachers has improved, but it is also because a headship increasingly entails management and paperwork rather than the contact with pupils that drew them to the profession in the first place.

Perversely, the poor quality of teaching might also be a consequence of higher pay, in that the package of pay and conditions on offer may attract some who regard teaching as a job rather than a vocation. The problem may be exacerbated, however, by the number of teachers required to teach subjects in which they are not qualified because of a shortage of maths and science teachers. One solution might be a differential pay structure that offers incentives for those opting to teach shortage subjects.

But one factor conspicuously absent from yesterday's report is surely also to blame for this situation: the Government's repeated failure to do more than tinker with secondary school curriculum reform. Ministers pay lip-service to better vocational education as a way of keeping the less academically inclined teenagers involved at school. But they rejected the recommendations of the Tomlinson's inquiry that would have brought vocational and academic education into a single diploma. Since then little has been done to give good vocational education a higher profile.

The brutal truth is that too many teenagers are bored with what they are taught. This, above all, is what lies behind Ofsted's conclusion that they are not receiving a good education.