Schools are getting better. Six years after the biggest education reforms in half a century, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector's report revealed yesterday that standards are inching up. But progress is slow. Teaching in more than a quarter of lessons in primary schools and just under a fifth in secondary schools is still poor. Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, says a significant number of children are failing to acquire basic reading and writing skills.
His complaints chime with those of employers who say school-leavers cannot add up or spell, and academics who contend that students arrive at university with a minimal grasp of basic grammar. Yet at GCSE the percentage of pupils gaining good grades are up by 7 per cent in the past six years and many more are getting As. At A-level, too, grades are rising inexorably.
So who is right? Comparisons with the past are complicated, but it has probably become easier to gain a top grade at GCSE. The proportion of pupils taking the 16-plus exam has risen dramatically since the Fifties. When examiners marked scripts for the top 20 per cent they formed one view of what constituted an A; now that the whole cohort of 16-year-olds takes the exam, the merely good begins to look excellent.
Educational fashions have a "swings and roundabouts" effect on standards. The now-defunct Assessment of Performance Unit showed in the Eighties a big improvement in children's knowledge of shape (geometry) matched by a decline in their ability to add, subtract and multiply. In English, too, while children express themselves more confidently and creatively, they are less certain how to spell and use full stops.
Schools, however, cannot take refuge in the fact that there is no simple answer to the question, "Are standards rising?" The uncomfortable truth is that some schools could do much better and a minority are failing children.
Why is this? Mr Woodhead offered one explanation last week. He suggested in a lecture that teachers were still in the grip of discredited "progressive" ideas. They are wedded, he said, to teaching children in groups rather than the whole class, to letting them discover things for themselves instead of instructing them, and to imparting skills rather than knowledge.
Yesterday, surrounded by sober members of his inspectorate, Mr Woodhead adopted a less flamboyant tone, maintaining that a mix of teaching methods is essential and opposing "a doctrinaire commitment to any one approach". As he appears to have realised, belatedly, the mix that makes a good teacher cannot be pigeon-holed under a single label, be that traditional or progressive.
In fact, research into which of these two methodologies was best was abandoned 20 years ago because it failed to add to knowledge on teaching standards. Prof Neville Bennett, of Exeter University, ranked the performances of 37 teachers and found that both the best and the worst used progressive methods. Almost any method could be good or bad, he said. "There is no evidence that whole class teaching is any better or any worse than any other kind. It can be brilliant or it can be bloody awful."
Yesterday's report suggests that trendy notions are not the only reason for bad teaching. Most poor teachers do not know enough to teach their subjects. And lessons, the report implies, are more likely to be boring than trendy. As senior inspectors confirmed, the professional culture is changing. More whole class teaching takes place and less topic work, although the changes are not as rapid as the inspectors would like.
So the key to raising standards is not a wholesale return to the didacticism of the Fifties. A much more damaging part of the "professional culture" is teachers' beliefs that schools cannot do much to raise achievement among children from poor backgrounds.
Teachers' excessively low expectations of children is the most common refrain in HMI reports and in research on school improvement. Children in inner-city areas suffer most. As yesterday's report puts it: "The overall situation is bleak. Less is expectedof pupils in disadvantaged areas. The teaching they experience is more likely to be judged unsatisfactory or poor." Mr Woodhead says there is no mystery about this: "Children achieve more when they are taught by teachers who have high, but realistic, expectations."
A project in Stoke-on-Trent, pioneered by Prof Tim Brighouse while he was at Keele University, provides startling evidence of this. Inner-city schools with low exam results and high truancy have been transformed simply by raising pupils' self-esteem and insisting that teachers demand more of them.
Michael Barber, who now heads the project, believes it is possible to change the culture of an organisation even without changing the personnel. "One of the first things to do is to get rid of this idea that bad schools are like the poor, that they are always with us. It is absolutely essential that they accept re-sponsibility for improvement," he says.
Yesterday's report identifies good leadership from the head as another vital ingredient in a school's success. The head's leadership is the critical factor in improving teaching quality, but Mr Woodhead says few heads spend enough time monitoring the quality of teaching and learning.
The Government deserves credit for rising standards. The introduction of the national curriculum and testing have broadened teaching and compelled schools to plan better and examine themselves more closely. Parents have been encouraged to demand high standards, and exam league tables have publicly emphasised failure.
As for the Government reform that produced the Office for Standards in Education itself, it is too early to say how effective its contribution will be to raising standards. In theory, it is a potent force for change since schools now face regular four-yearly inspections by independent contractors, under the aegis of HMIs working for Mr Woodhead. The criteria on which schools are judged are published, and the threat of inspection seems to be concentrating teachers' minds.
Yet the most intractable obstacle to raising standards - low expectations - remains. Ofsted inspectors hit a school and disappear. They pass and fail schools. It is far from clear that this "blitz" approach will contribute anything of value in persuadingteachers to demand more of their pupils.
The Chief Inspector of Schools'
52 `examples of excellence'
Aldridge School, Walsall.
Anfield Community Comprehensive School, Liverpool.
Ashton-on-Ribble High School, Preston.
Avondale School, Cheadle Heath, Stockport.
Belvidere School, Shrewsbury.
Bilton High School, Rugby, Warwicks.
Bingley Grammar School, West Yorks.
Bishop Stopford School, Kettering, Northants.
Calderstones Comprehensive School, Liverpool.
Chessington Community College, Kingston-upon-Thames.
Colyton Grammar School, Colyton, Devon.
Fairfield High School for Girls, Droylsden, Manchester.
Gable Hall GM Comprehensive, Stanford-le-Hope, Essex.
Garforth Community College, Leeds.
Graveney School, Wandsworth.
Greenbank High School, Sefton.
Hazel Grove High School, Stockport.
Holy Cross Convent School, New Malden, Kingston-upon-Thames.
Joseph Rowntree School, New Earswick, York.
King Ecgbert School, Sheffield.
Light Hall School, Solihull.
Methwold County High School, Norfolk.
Murray Park Community School, Derby.
Newbold Community School, Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
Northgate High School, Ipswich.
Parkside Comprehensive School, Crook, Co Durham.
Piggott School, Wargrave, Berkshire.
Ravens Wood School for Boys, Bromley.
Rooks Heath High School, Harrow.
St Edward's C of E School, Havering.
St Mary's RC School, Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
St Thomas a Becket RC Comprehensive, Wakefield.
St Thomas More Catholic High School, Crewe.
St Thomas More High School, North Shields.
Sir Henry Floyd Grammar School, Aylesbury, Bucks.
Tabor High School, Braintree, Essex.
The Corbet GM School, Shrewsbury.
The Downs School, Newbury, Berks.
The King Edward VI School, Morpeth, Northumberland.
The King's High School, Pontefract, West Yorkshire.
The King's School, Peterborough.
The Marches School, Oswestry, Shropshire.
The Netherhall School, Cambridge.
The Noreth Halifax Grammar School.
The Ralph Allen School, Combe Down, Bath.
The Rawlins Upper School and Community College, Quorn, Leicstershire.
The Royal Manor School, Portland, Dorset.
The Summerhill School, Dudley.
The Wakeman School, Shrewsbury.
Warley High School, Sandwell.
Whitesmore School, Solihull.
Woolston School, Warrington, Cheshire.
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