Education & Family

Ofsted warns on 'unacceptable' gaps in school standards

Sir Michael Wilshaw
Image caption Sir Michael Wilshaw is challenging the gap in standards between local authorities

Families' chances of having a good local school depend too much on which part of the country they live in, warns England's education watchdog Ofsted.

Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, publishing Ofsted's annual report, said this was leading to "serious inequalities" for millions of children.

Ofsted is launching a league table ranking local authorities according to inspectors' ratings of schools.

Sir Michael said: "The inequalities for local children are stark."

Figures published by the education watchdog show that in some areas there is a less than 50% chance of a good or outstanding school - compared with more than 90% in others.

The report also highlighted concerns about the quality of further education colleges, saying that for the second year running, Ofsted did not judge a single college to be outstanding for teaching and learning.

League table

Ofsted's annual report said schools in England were getting better, with 70% of schools now rated good or outstanding compared to 64% five years ago.

An extra half a million pupils were now being in taught in good or better schools, it said, but almost 2.3 million children were still attending a "small minority" of schools that are less than good.

And the gap in standards between authorities facing similar challenges was too wide.

"That's why I intend from January to use Ofsted's new regional structure to inquire further into areas that are performing badly," said Sir Michael.

"We need to find out what is happening and inspect where necessary. We will also work with local areas to support then and help them link up with best practice."

The report gives the example that a child living in Derby or Doncaster has only half the chance of attending a good or outstanding primary or secondary school compared with a child living in Wigan or Darlington.

It says a parent in Coventry has only a 42% chance of sending their child to a good or outstanding state primary compared to a 92% chance for a parent living in the London borough of Camden and 91% in Barnet.

"There are differences between local authorities with similar demographics," Sir Michael told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"We'll be looking very carefully at what's happening in those local authorities with the same sort of population, with similar levels of deprivation, similar numbers of children on free school meals, where one particular local authority does extremely well and another one doesn't.

"We'll be asking a question - why is it parents in some parts of the country have less than a 50% chance of getting their children into a good primary school where there are other parts of the country where that chance is over 90%?"

Ofsted's rankings illustrate these differences by ranking councils in terms of the inspection judgements made about schools in their areas, including academies which are outside of local authority control.

Academy status

That will increase pressure on local authorities at the bottom of the table.

Teachers' unions also warn that this is likely to be used by the government in a further push for schools to leave local authorities and become academies.

"Naming and shaming... would certainly suit the education department to push all local authorities into the position of converting schools to academies," said Christine Blower, leader of the National Union of Teachers.

David Simmonds, representing the Local Government Association, cautioned that local authorities had diminishing amounts of direct control over schools - because of central government directives and targets and the shift towards academies.

"Councils want to intervene more quickly, but decades of giving schools 'greater freedom' and 'protecting' them from council interference means that local authorities now have very indirect and bureaucratic ways to tackle poor performance," he said.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "Sir Michael is right that standards in some local authorities are simply not good enough. There are still too many schools that do not provide a good enough education. We make no apology for introducing reforms to drive up standards in schools.

"The report recognises that sponsored academies - with strong leadership and real expertise - are the best way to turn around struggling schools. That is why we are identifying consistently weak schools and allowing experienced academy sponsors to take them over. Academies have already turned around hundreds of struggling schools and are improving their results at twice the national average."

Labour's shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, said: "Today's report shows the results of Labour's education reforms - including academies and better school leadership. There are half a million more children in good or better schools compared thanks to over a decade of investment and reform.

"However, there remains an arc of underachievement which is holding back too many young people. Even in David Cameron's backyard of Oxfordshire, there are too many coasting schools. We need to learn from success stories like Wigan and Darlington to understand why other areas are less successful."

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