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James Meikle, education correspondent

Thursday November 23, 2006

The Guardian

http://education.guardian.co.uk/ofsted/sto...1954868,00.html

Four in 10 schools in England are failing to provide children with a good education, with the worst problems in secondary schools, where the proportion is more than half, the government's inspectorate said yesterday.

One in eight secondaries, 13%, are judged inadequate and another 38% satisfactory, a category the chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, called "not good enough" as she presented the annual report on standards.

She said more needed to be done and swiftly, particularly in secondaries, where the proportion of inadequate schools was nearly twice the 7% of primaries.

Ms Gilbert said it was "unacceptable" that the gap between the best and worst schools was so wide, although she said that changes in the way school inspections are conducted and their results categorised made it difficult to compare year-on-year progress and the situation before Labour took power in 1997.

"The report card for education has been increasingly encouraging over the past 10 years, but it still is not good enough," Ms Gilbert said.

The findings, relating to more than 6,000 schools, follow the first year of new shorter and sharper inspections with criteria that were tougher than before. Ms Gilbert said she accepted that secondary schools were complex organisations, facing a "large, even daunting" range of issues, some from outside the school gates, but the proportion of schools deemed inadequate "remains the greatest challenge to the education system".

Quality of headteachers and deputies was vital to whether a school succeeded or failed. The verdict on academies was "uneven but broadly positive" given the low achievement in schools they replaced.

She was encouraged by nursery schools, where an impressive 39% were judged outstanding and 50% good. Among special schools, 21% were outstanding and 58% good. Colleges of further education were improving too. But there remained "unacceptable" levels of attendance and attainment by children in care. One in eight looked-after children were absent from schools at least 25 days of the year.

Jim Knight, the schools minister, also said direct comparisons would be misleading, since schools that were judged good previously might now only be deemed satisfactory. But expectations were higher than ever and judgments needed to be tougher too. "No school should be inadequate and there should be no hiding place for underperforming or coasting." There were new powers to turn round schools, close or replace them if they did not make sufficient progress within 12 months.

The education department denied any suggestion four in 10 schools were failing. But the Conservatives said children were still getting a raw deal. "Teachers are working incredibly hard but there are too many different targets and initiatives, so they can't focus on what really matters - teaching in the classroom," said David Willetts, their education spokesman.

The best way to bridge the gap between best and worst schools was to concentrate on discipline, behaviour and more streaming in all schools.

The Lib Dems' Sarah Teather said Labour was "letting down all those pupils who rely on these failing schools to give them a fair start in life". Criticism from Ofsted had to be matched by practical measures. "Under-performing schools are more likely to have non-expert teachers in key subjects like science and maths and have a harder time recruiting headteachers." Time and money was needed to turn things round.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of College Leaders, accused Ofsted and the government of "setting up schools for failure".

In a speech following the publication of the report, Alan Milburn, the former cabinet minister, suggested that parents with children at underperforming schools should be given a "credit" allowing them to move to more successful ones.

His proposal follows discussions with the schools minister Lord Adonis, who is known to be interested in the idea. Mr Milburn suggested that the credit should be worth 150% of the cost of educating the child in the current school, and that it could be piloted nationwide in 88 schools which have been in special measures for at least 12 months.

A quarter of the 44,300 pupils in these schools were from families poor enough to qualify for free school meals. The scheme could then be extended to the parents of more than 300,000 children in schools that failed to meet adequate standards of attainment for two or more years.

"It is simply not right - and we should no longer tolerate the fact - that too many working-class children are still let down by the schools system," he said.

Mr Milburn's intervention was the first public move by a Labour politician to promote an idea similar to one suggested by Sir Keith Joseph in the mid-1980s.

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