Leading article: Unacceptable inadequacies

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The Independent Online

A great deal is written and spoken about the state of our education system on the basis of anecdotal evidence and prejudice. That makes it vital that we pay close attention to the education watchdog, Ofsted, which provides a reliable annual snapshot of the state education sector.

The latest Ofsted report shows some evidence of improvement. The number of secondary schools judged to be inadequate has fallen from 13 per cent to 10 per cent. Some 14 per cent of schools are judged outstanding, up by three percentage points from last year. But half of secondary schools remain only satisfactory or worse. That is not good enough, especially given the huge amount of public money that has been invested in education in the past decade. As the chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, pointed out yesterday, it cannot be right that 20 per cent of pupils leave primary school without a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy. Nor can it be right that in our mature economy some 200,000 teenagers remain outside education, training or employment.

A closer analysis of the statistics highlights the roots of the problem. Poorer children achieve lower results than their peers from wealthier backgrounds. Only 33 per cent of pupils who are eligible for free school meals achieved five or more good GCSEs compared with 61 per cent of other pupils. The social divide in schooling is failing to close. The report also demonstrates that there is a chasm between the performance of primary and secondary sectors. Some 60 per cent of primary schools are in the "good" or "outstanding" category. But only 51 per cent of secondary schools reach this standard. And one in 10 is judged inadequate. This goes some way to explaining the parental flight to the independent sector of recent years.

There are two main problems with our education system. Too many children are allowed to fall away when they enter secondary education. And schools in deprived areas are slipping further behind. It is true that poor discipline and an unsupportive home life make teaching difficult in certain schools. But the primary cause of poor discipline is substandard teaching. It is not good enough to blame the children. And schools must be a way of liberating children from a chaotic home life. Inadequacy in these institutions is even less acceptable than it would be in wealthy areas.

The Government is adopting the right solution by rolling out the academies programme. Concentrated investment in deprived areas and giving individual schools greater freedom is the only constructive approach around. But this report shows the sheer scale of the task ahead for this – and any – Government in reforming the education system. There are few more urgent challenges in British politics.

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