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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 November 2006, 00:47 GMT
Schools: to fail or not to fail?
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker
The headlines in some newspapers were shocking: "More than half of secondary schools are failing pupils".

But is that really true? And where does it leave Tony Blair's mantra of "education, education, education"?

It was certainly the case that, in its annual report, Ofsted judged that 13% of secondary schools were "inadequate".

Additionally it said a further 38% were only "satisfactory", with the rest either "good" or "outstanding".

The problem was that the chief inspector of schools in England, Christine Gilbert, had endorsed her predecessor's view that "satisfactory" was not good enough.

This gave reporters carte blanche to add the 38% in the "satisfactory" category to the 13% dubbed "inadequate", giving 51% that were not good enough.

However headline writers do not care much for words like "satisfactory", so they opted instead to say that over half of schools were "failing".

This muddies the waters for two reasons. First, is it really fair to say that being "not good enough" is the same as "failing"? I think not.

Second, the word "failing" has a very different, and specific, meaning in the language of school inspectors.

In Ofsted-speak, it equates to a school being put in the most serious sub-category of "inadequate", namely "special measures".

In education circles, therefore, "failing" means just those schools placed in special measures, and given notice to improve or face closure.

Worrying picture

That applies not to 51% of schools, nor even 13%. In fact, just 0.9% of schools are in special measures.

For schools teaching media studies, this might make an interesting case study of the connection between headlines and stories.

However, terminological inexactitude aside, this still appears to be a fairly worrying picture of England's secondary schools.

After all, this government has put enormous energy and resources into secondary school reform.

After a first term of office that unashamedly focused on primary schools, Labour has made many changes to secondary education.

The prime minister has repeatedly talked about "modernising" comprehensives.

There have been endless initiatives: Education Action Zones, specialist schools, city academies, a new 14 to 19 curriculum, vocational reforms, anti-truancy drives and, now, the planned reforms to create trust schools.

Value added data

Yet still 13% of secondaries are judged inadequate. There are two possible explanations for this: either the Ofsted judgement is unreasonable or the reforms are not working well enough.

The leader of the Association of School and College Leaders, John Dunford, thinks it is the former. He says Ofsted has unfairly "raised the bar" on what schools are expected to achieve.

In particular, he alleges that Ofsted inspectors are now required to base their judgements on a new measure of test and exam scores.

This is called "contextualised value added" (CVA) because it compares schools with others in similar circumstances and backgrounds and looks at the gain made by pupils while they are there.

Dr Dunford argues that, because this data is comparative, there will always be a group of schools at the bottom and therefore a certain proportion will inevitably be judged "inadequate".

Improving

Ofsted, while accepting it has "raised the bar", denies there is any question of inevitability about a certain proportion of schools being found wanting.

A spokeswoman insisted there was "nothing formulaic, or norm-referenced" about inspectors' use of CVA data - that they found it useful, but their judgements were not bound by it.

Readers must make up their own mind about this. However, if we do accept Ofsted's explanation, that means 13% of schools are "inadequate" on the basis of what the inspectors saw as they toured these schools.

Remember, though, that Ofsted also argued that standards overall were improving. So that must mean that the gap between the best and the worst is growing.

Does that suggest that while the government's reforms are working for most schools, there is something intrinsic to these reforms that means they will always leave a substantial minority of schools lagging behind?

Critics of league tables and the quasi-market in school reforms argue that ours is a school system that creates "winners" and "losers". Are they right?

There is a conundrum in an education policy that emphasises target-setting, publication of comparative results, school autonomy, and competitiveness between schools over their pupil intakes.

It is this: will the rising tide of standards eventually lift all boats or will it inevitably leave some sinking, with their occupants drowning?


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SEE ALSO
More schools judged 'inadequate'
22 Nov 06 |  Education

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