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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 February, 2005, 01:53 GMT
Schools jumping higher hurdles
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
Would it be fair to Arsenal if, each time they played Manchester United, their goal was made a little bit wider? I suspect that Arsene Wenger might have something to say about that.

Equally, one can assume that A-level students would feel aggrieved if pass-rates were raised each year just to increase the educational challenge?

I ask this because something similar has been happening to schools: they are having to jump higher and higher to avoid being classified as "failing".

At the publication of his annual report, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England, David Bell, announced an increase in the rate at which schools are being put into "special measures" or, in lay terms, judged to be failing.

A total of 213 schools were placed in "special measures" last year. That was a rise of 30% on the 160 schools failed in 2002/3. The year before that it was 129.

'Shifting goalposts'

At first sight, this might look as if our schools are getting worse, despite Mr Bell's reassurance in his annual report that overall standards are improving.

But, as Mr Bell was candid enough to acknowledge, the bar has been raised: schools must now leap a higher quality threshold to avoid being branded as failures.

The current guidance for inspectors is that a school may be put into "special measures" if teaching is unsatisfactory in more than 10% of lessons. Yet until recently up to 20% of lessons could be unsatisfactory before a verdict of failure was considered.

Head teachers, whose jobs have become as subject to instant judgements as Premiership football managers, have cried "foul". They believe the goalposts have been shifted.

Yet Mr Bell cannot be accused of surreptitiously shifting the goal nets. Indeed he has done so in full view of the goalkeepers, even warning them at the time that he is doing so.

He "makes no apology" for this raising of expectations: he believes it is right to aim for ever higher school standards.

David Bell, Chief Inspector of schools in England
David Bell makes no apologies for "raising the bar"

Moreover he argues that the 10% benchmark is reasonable given that the quality of teaching generally has improved significantly over recent years; the proportion judged unsatisfactory nationally is now only about 5%.

Mr Bell takes a firm line on standards because he believes there is strong evidence that putting schools into "special measures" results in improvement and a better deal for the pupils.

He cites the fact that, since the category of "special measures" was introduced in 1993, over 1200 failing schools have managed to lift themselves out of it. Moreover of those schools re-inspected after coming out of "special measures", almost three out of five had become good, very good or even outstanding schools.

So Mr Bell believes in "special measures". So too, one assumes, does the government.

But I suspect that ministers were not too pleased to wake up to newspaper headlines suggesting that school standards were deteriorating not, as Labour had promised the voters, "getting better"?

With an unofficial general election campaign already under way, ministers would dearly have liked some rather better news from Ofsted.

Of course, it is emphatically not Ofsted's role to try to please the government.

And Mr Bell made his independence clear when, just after the political parties had been pronouncing on school discipline, he warned that the general election might tempt some to pursue "short-term eye-catching initiatives".

But it is not only politicians who might be concerned about the raising of the bar for schools trying to avoid being classed as failing.


The leader of the Secondary Heads Association, John Dunford, is "hopping mad" about it.

He says he had warned, from the moment the inspection framework was changed in 2003, that the inevitable increase in the number of schools failing would mask the overall and continuing improvement in schools.

He says this raising of the bar assumes Ofsted is "a punitive organisation which must put a certain number of schools into special measures or it is not doing its job".

He also argues with Mr Bell's belief that being failed is good for schools. While he admits it does sometimes bring improvement, he says it makes it harder to improve because the label of "special measures" means it becomes very hard to recruit staff and attract new pupils.

David Bell and John Dunford are both very experienced educators and equally committed to improving things for students.

Deciding who is right on this requires a judgement of Solomon.

But what does seem to be healthy for education is that Ofsted is making its decisions on what it thinks is right for pupils without fear of upsetting a government eager for good news in the run-up to an election.

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