LEADING ARTICLE:Making bad schools better

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There will be a thinly veiled sense of panic in many homes this morning as parents digest what the Government's chief inspector has to say about the state of our primary and secondary schools. It will be matched by a mixture of depression, anxiety and probably resentment among teachers in some of the many schools identified as underperforming.

The inspector, Chris Woodhead, the chief executive of Ofsted, concluded that standards need to be raised in half of primary schools and 40 per cent of secondary schools. Sounds awful, but it isn't all bad. About 200 schools were highlighted for standards that were "good, improving or outstanding". Excellent schools are spread across the country. They are not by any means all selective. Schools in very similar environments achieve widely differing results. As Mr Woodhead pointed out: "The most successful secondary schools achieve GCSE results twice as good as others in similar socio-economic circumstances."

So English schools are not overwhelmingly bad and they are not doomed to disaster by their funding structure, the background of their pupils or their admissions procedure. The question is how those underperforming schools can be brought closer to the standards of the best.

We should start with the quality of teachers. Thousands of teachers are not delivering. But sacking the worst teachers is at best only a small part of the solution. Bad teachers are far outnumbered by the mass which is hardworking, dedicated and often talented. We will only recruit and retain teachers of high quality once the profession is just that, a high- status career, highly regarded by society and rewarded in kind. We should demand high performance from teachers, but be ready to reward it when it is delivered.

Effective teaching is only possible within a well-managed school. Headteachers probably matter more than anyone else to improving the quality of a school. The best teacher in the world will not succeed in a demoralised and badly managed school. Headteachers should be given more special training to develop managerial and entrepreneurial skills.

However, a headteacher can only manage a school within an environment largely created by government and local authorities. There is a mounting case for shifting away from mixed-ability teaching in all classes to more setting and streaming within comprehensive schools. Individual-oriented learning programmes should be balanced with whole class teaching and the traditional methods that still prevail on the Continent. And primary schools should not be distracted by too broad a national curriculum, with other social and moral tasks loaded on top. Every school should have the resources it needs to teach properly - that may mean that schools in problem areas with large numbers of difficult children will need extra funding.

The Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, responded to yesterday's report by promising to publish league tables for primary schools. This is not good enough. Tests, league tables and regular Ofsted reports are all useful: they monitor progress and help parents to make choices. That may prompt some improvements. But our real aim must be to create a professional, motivated and well-managed body of teachers employing the right teaching techniques.