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Wednesday, 5 February, 2003, 20:52 GMT
Schools' report: Ask the Chief Inspector
School classroom

  Click here to watch the forum.  

  • Click here for transcript.


    England's schools are much improved but still failing too many youngsters, especially the less academic, according to the chief inspector of schools.

    In his annual report for 2001-02, Ofsted chief David Bell says a quarter of the lessons seen by inspectors were only "satisfactory" - which might no longer be good enough.

    Teacher shortages and truancy and bad behaviour by pupils still plague many of the tougher schools.

    His report - his first since taking over the post of chief inspector last May - also says more pupils than ever are benefiting from improvements in school standards and it highlights hundreds of schools which have done particularly well.

    Are our schools good enough?

    You put your questions to the Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell.


    Transcript:

    Newshost:
    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Online interactive forum. The chief inspector of England's schools says there are still serious problems in some parts of the education system. David Bell, the head of the school's watchdog Ofsted, says in his annual report that many less academic pupils in particular are being let down. Well Mr Bell joins us on the line to answer your questions. David good afternoon.

    The first question is from Karen Lichfield in Derbyshire who says she's curious to know how you define satisfactory, clearly a satisfactory lesson should be just that, why aren't you aiming for good or better?

    David Bell:
    I absolutely agree with that. I mean it's fair to say that the levels of unsatisfactory and poor teaching have declined over the years. When Ofsted was first created we were looking at 25 per cent of teaching that was unsatisfactory or poor, now it's only four per cent, almost 70 per cent of teaching is good but yes there's about 25 per cent that's satisfactory and yes, as Karen suggests, that's fine, it's satisfactory but surely we should be looking to going from satisfactory to good and if possible good to excellent.

    Newshost:
    I'm wondering if you've set a bit of a hare running here by using that word? Mark Squires who writes from the Lake District says: "Should we now be seeing schools and teachers that are 'satisfactory' as providing a poor education?"

    David Bell:
    No I think what we're suggesting is that satisfactory is, as the word suggests, satisfactory. But I think one of the points that I was making today is that whilst we've seen very significant improvements from more and more children in the English education system we are reaching a bit of a plateau, we've seen that in terms of the achievement of 11-year-olds in the tests, where results have really been sticking for three years and some of the youngsters that we're talking about that are less well served perhaps are more challenging. And the question that I asked today was is satisfactory good enough or do we have to raise our game even more? Teachers have made enormous progress in the quality of their work over the past 10 years and perhaps the next big challenge is to move the quality even more in the future.

    Newshost:
    Let me just press you on that - I mean you pose the question rhetorically - are you saying to teachers it is not good enough to be satisfactory?

    David Bell:
    What I am saying is that in many cases teachers have themselves improved their performance from satisfactory to good and that's why we've now got 70 per cent of teaching seen during inspection as good. And yes the big challenge is to say whether we can move more and more of the satisfactory teaching to be good and that's a big challenge but teachers have been rising to the challenge of improvement over the past 10 years.

    Newshost: Okay, well we're taking e-mails while we're on the air, we've had one just in from Dee in the UK who perhaps looks at it from a slightly different angle David, she says: "Your report says that the system is failing the less academic pupils - is it the teachers who are failing them or is it unrealistic academic targets that have been set for their education?"

    David Bell:
    I think one of the things that I point out is that if you're an academic student and by that I mean you're following two or three A-levels and you're heading off to higher education, the English system actually caters very well for you. If you're a less academic student and perhaps want to do more of a mixture of courses, some with a vocational dimension, some of a more academic dimension it's a much more haphazard picture. And so first of all we need to have a more coherent pattern of provision and options for such young people. Now I'm quite optimistic on this one because the Government's brought forward some proposals on 14-19 education recently which I do think provides some real hope for the future.

    Newshost:
    One here from somebody who's clearly a worried mother - Caroline Wilson in Norwich, who says: "What can the Government do to protect my child's education? He's currently in year 4 and is clearly suffering in a school that is already under-performing?" Now obviously you can't talk about a particular case but your inspectors' reports do alarm parents sometimes don't they?

    David Bell:
    Yes I think the first thing I would say is that inspection reports do provide information to parents and of course we shouldn't go back to a situation where such information was not available. We do make some tough judgements about schools and we do describe some schools across the country as failing and that's a tough judgement and it's hard but actually if you're a parent you don't want your child to be in a school that's failing and therefore it's right for us to identify such schools but not as an end in itself, so that those schools can improve. And I'm delighted to say that in my annual report today I identified a 150 schools that had previously been failing but are now improving sufficiently to be no longer categorised as that. So I think that there is some hope there for parents who feel at the moment that their child's in a school that's not necessarily as good as it should be.

    Newshost:
    What would you say - it's a bit of a cliché that they only get one chance at this - what would you say to a mother like that who's looking at a child who's in year 4 - so they're probably eight, nine years old - hasn't got much longer to go in that school - should they move them or what?

    David Bell:
    I mean I think that's, in the end, a decision for an individual parent to make but what I would say is that schools that we've identified as failing can often make very rapid improvements, usually because the leadership and management has improved, the quality of teaching's improved, so whilst I understand the concern of any watching who's got a child in such a school, if the school is determined to tackle those issues of under-performance then improvement can be rapid.

    Newshost:
    Another live e-mail just in from James Anderson in one of the Newcastles - it doesn't say which one - who says: "I'm annoyed with all the negative talk about our education system, I think teachers are doing a fantastic job in often very difficult circumstances, instead of complaining about the problems what are we doing to prevent them?"

    David Bell:
    Well I would actually argue that my report gives a lot of comfort to people like James in that we do say that the education system's doing better and better for more and more pupils, the quality of teaching's improved, the quality of school management's improved, the level of attainments for 11-year-olds or 16-year-olds or 18-year-olds - all of those things have very significant signs of improvement. And I'm absolutely clear in my report that teachers should take the credit for those improvements. But it would have been quite wrong, wouldn't it, for us to run away from the difficulties that do exist. And one of the virtues of Ofsted and the role of the chief inspector is to be able to highlight what's going well but also point to what's not going quite so well so that politicians can bring forward ideas and schools can look at their own performance in that context.

    Newshost:
    Kevin Buckley in Margate in Kent says that your report says that almost all schools have pupils with no social skills, whose language is offensive and he says can schools really be held responsible for such offensive behaviour?

    David Bell:
    Well I think I've been very clear in my report that some of our schools face particularly challenging circumstances. But yes I do also point out that even schools that arguably are serving more advantaged communities do have to put up with behavioural difficulties. I also agree that this is not simply a task for teachers, schools can only be effective where both teachers are working well and parents are supportive, now that seems to me to be terribly, terribly important and I would want to get that message out loud and clear - don't point to schools and say this isn't working, that's not working if you, as a parent, are not prepared to support your child's school in what it's trying to do.

    Newshost:
    Ofsted's been going for 10 years now, obviously you've only been in the job for less than a year actually but you took the opportunity in this report, because of the decade span, to look back over those years and show how standards have raised - I'm just wondering if pupil behaviour has deteriorated, has that been a more common feature in the report in recent years?

    David Bell:
    Well what we said this year that if you look at secondary schools the majority, the vast majority, of secondary schools are orderly communities despite, in some cases, having a few pupils who cause disruption. But it is true to say that we've got 1 in 12 secondary schools where behaviour is poor or unsatisfactory and that's been the case for the last two years. So there clearly is an issue here that we have to tackle and I know that the Government's looking at bringing forward some new proposals for managing pupils with difficult behaviour. I would say one other thing that I highlighted in this report - we mustn't disentangle behaviour from the way in which pupils are taught, there's strong evidence in our inspections that where pupils are well challenged, where the structure of lessons is clear, where there are high expectations, where it's pacey and it moves through in a brisk way that can actually be very useful, very helpful to pupils. So I'm not saying that simply dealing with behaviour is to do with good teaching but there is no doubt in our minds that where teaching is good it can have a major impact in improving the quality of the behaviour.

    Newshost:
    David Sandford writes from Grenoble in France where he says he's working, I don't know whether he's a teacher or what, but he says: "Ofsted inspections are a way of assessing, monitoring and improving standards in schools, the results are available to the public, given this do you think we need SATs tests and league tables to assess essentially the same things?"

    David Bell:
    Well we don't assess the same thing I think. I mean league tables of examination results or key stage results, that provides you with one snapshot on the school's performance but one of the virtues of Ofsted inspections is that they give you a more rounded picture. I mean I'm a parent so I'm interested, not just in how my children attain at school but I want to know what else the school is doing - is the behaviour okay, is there a good range of extra curricula opportunities, are the teachers of a high standard? So an Ofsted report gives you that rounded picture. And I think it's been one of the virtues of the education system over the past 10 years but it has become much more open. I actually say in my report that we never again must have a situation where education is a secret garden to those who have the greatest interest in it - that is to say pupils and their families. And it's really important we put that information into the public domain so that the public can also assess, not just their own child's school, but also the state of the nation more generally.

    Newshost:
    This is a question which is sort of the issue of the Queen thinking the world smells of fresh paint here, I'm wondering how accurate a picture your inspectors actually get because Jenni Dixon in Sheffield says she completed her A-levels last year at a school that always gets good reports from Ofsted, one teacher would teach a lesson the week before an inspector came, then redo the lesson when the inspector was there to give the impression all the students understood everything straightaway - now are you getting an accurate picture?

    David Bell:
    Well I can't deny that some of what your viewer described goes on but I'd make a couple of points. First of all we only give schools a maximum of 10 weeks notice of an inspection and if a school pretty bad you really can't turn that round. We have to give schools that period of notice because we're required by law to consult the governors and the parents but if a school's in a bad state 10 weeks won't turn it round. Secondly, I think I'd have some concerns about a school, once the inspectors have gone they've done their job but the education of those pupils is the school's responsibility and really is it in anyone's interest if there's some sort of deception going on? I actually have to say to you the vast majority of schools don't do that because they want to be seen to be doing what they do on a day-to-day basis because they do recognise that that's in the best interest of the pupils. And the best schools use inspection reports and their findings to take forward the next stage of improvements - so schools themselves see inspection reports as very valuable in driving forward improvement.

    Newshost:
    We have an e-mail from K. Munn, who's a chair of governors in London, who says that when a school's inspected by Her Majesty's inspectors and deemed good and then an interim inspection, two years later, says it's doing okay and then there's a full inspection two years later and it says the school hasn't improved since the previous inspection - there's plainly a particular case here which you can't comment on but I'm wondering how you go about assuring the consistency of the inspections?

    David Bell:
    Yes. I mean it's fair to say that 90 per cent of schools improve between their first and second inspection, we do highlight that in the report and I think that's very encouraging. But the fact of the matter is that some schools don't and in fact some schools deteriorate. So it may not be a question of consistency, it may be that in fact the issue that inspectors are reporting what they find. Now I'm pleased to say that that is - deterioration is actually quite unusual between inspections but we know it happens and that's why in the end the inspectors, when they go in, have to report what they find.

    Newshost:
    Well I'm afraid we've run out of time. My thanks to our guest, David Bell, and to you for all your e-mails. From me Gary Eason and all the interactive team goodbye.

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