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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Tynedale: Ofsted uncovers crisis in schools

A HUGE question mark is hanging over Tynedale’s middle schools following a snap inspection of 17 schools across Northumberland by education standards watchdog Ofsted.

Inspectors found that standards have declined alarmingly in many schools – with the three-tier system partly to blame.

Inspectors felt that the three-tier system made it difficult for the county council to keep track of pupils’ progress between schools.

The finger of blame for the decline is being pointed at the council – which this week parted company with its director of children’s services Paul Moffat.

In a damning report, Ofsted’s regional director Nick Hudson said: “It is of great concern to me that in the period since September 2012 there has been a significant and worrying decline in inspection outcomes.

“This downward trend shows that in the last 14 months the proportion of good and better schools has declined, most notably in the middle and high school sectors.

“The proportion of schools in special measures is also much higher than that previously seen in the county.

“This downward trend of school performance is unacceptable against an overall national and regional improvement.

“Consequently, this means that children in Northumberland have less chance of going to a good school, particularly in the middle and high school sectors.

“This result is unacceptable and will be of great concern to parents, carers and pupils alike.”

One of the main bones of contention in the report was the council’s ability to keep track of pupils as they transfer from first and middle schools.

Mr Hudson said: “Responses from a number of schools raised significant concerns about the local authority’s paucity of knowledge about pupils’ attainment and progress across year groups in the three-tier system of schools.

“The local authority has failed to ensure the accuracy of assessment information when pupils transfer to middle or high schools at ages nine and 13 years.

“The local authority is not well placed to provide an accurate and up-to-date view of each school’s performance and the progress made by pupils.

“Some schools have little confidence in the accuracy of other schools’ tracking data.”

Mr Hudson noted that standards had declined in three-quarters of the schools inspected.

He said: “These figures do not reflect well on the local authority’s capacity or influence to drive improvement.

“The results suggest that the support provided by the local authority in those schools placed in special measures has not been effective, and it seems that actions to tackle weaknesses have not been swift enough to arrest the decline in these schools.”

He found the council’s strategy was inadequately communicated to schools, and added: “The level of challenge offered to schools by the local authority is at best patchy and, in some cases, inadequate.

“Headteachers and governors expressed their concerns about the over-reliance on data, insufficient first-hand knowledge of the quality of teaching, over generous evaluations about schools’ performance and a lack of objectivity.”

Many schools had expressed concerns about the local authority being “stretched” and unable to provide the skills, expertise and experience required to assist schools in making improvements.

Mr Hudson went on: “There is a lack of confidence in the local authority’s approach to supporting school-to-school access to best practice.

“There are also some strong concerns about inadequate support for schools when dealing with the under-performance of staff, including teaching staff.”

Mr Hudson concluded: “There is a clear and pressing need for significant action to establish and embed a clear strategic vision for sustained improvement across schools in Northumberland.

“These efforts are urgently required to tackle under-performance in a relatively large number of schools and ensure that pupils’ achievement rises to a good standard.”

The county council’s policy board member for children’s services Coun. Robert Arckless, said this week that the Ofsted inspections had raised a number of issues which the council was taking very seriously and working hard to resolve.

He said: “We will be working closely with the schools and increasing the levels of support so that together we can quickly improve the situation for the children and young people where it has been found to be inadequate.

“We are now focused on making the tangible improvements required. We’re determined to get this right so that there is a good school for every Northumberland learner.”

On the question of middle schools, Coun. Arckless said the current issue was not about the system, but about good schools and weak schools.

He said: “The council will be focusing on Ofsted’s recommendations and working hard to drive up standards where these weaknesses have been identified.”