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Chris McGovern: No cause for complacency. Around 1.5 million children are getting sub-standard education


The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has just published his annual report to Parliament. It puts our schools on what might be described as ‘amber alert’. Any suggestion of a ‘green light’ for progress had to be rejected on the basis that, “improvement in secondary schools has stalled over the last year”. Twenty nine per cent of pupils in the 11-18 age group are being educated in schools that are rated below “good”. Sir Michael does not report that this amounts to slightly over three quarters of a million youngsters.

The good news in the report is a “continued improvement in the standard of education offered in our primary schools”. It claims that: “Eighty two per cent of primary schools are now at least good.” We are not informed that the 18 per cent of primary school pupils in sub-standard schools also represents around three quarters of a million pupils – much the same number as for secondary schools. There are more pupils in primary schools (around 4.2 million) than in secondary (around 2.7 million). In total, therefore, around one and half million pupils in England are being ‘short-changed’ by their schools. For these pupils, at least, our education system should be placed on ‘red alert’.

Clearly, many schools are working extremely hard to raise standards. It may seem churlish and ungracious to be critical of their dedication. Effort in some aspects of teaching, by some schools, not least the recent revival of phonics for the teaching of reading, has been admirable. Nevertheless, until the teaching profession, the education ‘experts’, the teacher-trainers, the inspectors and the Department for Education fully wake up to the extent of their failure over several decades, we will never be in a position to match the best education systems around he globe.

The business of Ofsted is to make judgements. The factors underpinning these judgements have an enormous influence on schools in general and on teaching in particular. An analysis by Daisy Christodoulou, in her book Seven Myths about Education, of lessons judged to be “good” or “outstanding” showed that so-called ‘child-centred’ learning is, almost, a precondition for winning a “good” rating from an inspector. This teaching method involves minimal input from the teacher who, instead, becomes what one education grandee described as a “learning manager of the learning process”.

‘Whole class’ teaching is, invariably, regarded by inspectors as unsatisfactory. Such ‘trendy’ Ofsted nonsense not only flies in the face of ‘common sense’, it is contradicted by research. A recent study by Zhenzen Miao and Professor David Reynolds of Southampton University found that a major reason why our 15-year-olds are, on average, three years behind their peers in China in mathematics is because the Chinese use ‘whole class’ teaching methods. Schools minister, Nick Gibb, has taken note and urged our teachers to learn from this research. His call is likely to fall on death ears whilst Ofsted equate “good” lessons with ‘child-centred’ lessons. Most schools currently ranked highly by inspectors would have been downgraded if they adopted ‘whole class’ teaching.

The Chief Inspector’s annual report sounds a note of caution about progress being made by our secondary schools.  He is right to temper the usual mood of self-congratulation within the educational establishment. The sad and stunning reality is that, according to the latest OECD data, the top 20 per cent of our pupils lag behind the bottom 10 per cent in top performing Shanghai. We have a mountain to climb. The best that can be said is that some primary schools may have taken the first step towards climbing that mountain.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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