THE BLOG

Shocking News - Schools Are Improving (Slightly)

13/12/2013 15:05 GMT | Updated 11/02/2014 10:59 GMT

You might not have guessed it from reading this week's education headlines, but schools in England are actually getting better.

Nearly eight out of 10 are judged good or outstanding in the annual report from the schools inspectorate, Ofsted - the highest proportion in the watchdog's 20-year history. There are, says the chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, "unmistakable signs that England's education system is gradually improving".

Similarly with the release this week of primary school league tables, the number of schools not meeting a new target for reading, writing and maths is down on last year (or rather, the Department for Education calculates that it would be down if the target had existed last year). What is more, the number of children reaching expected levels has increased steadily over the past decade and a half.

Of course this is not what journalists chose to highlight. Instead you probably read about the battle against mediocrity, postcode lotteries and hundreds of schools failing to meet targets - just as the other week you will have read about the UK 'stagnating' in the OECD's international league tables for maths, English and science.

In a way, the journalists' approach is right. I have done the same when interpreting reports - and with some justification. It is not simply a matter of seeing the glass half empty or preferring bad news because it makes for more interesting copy (and I'm afraid it does). It is also about expecting all children to do well and not tolerating poor performance by any schools.

And therefore it is not news that the majority of children are reaching target levels and that most schools are good or better - they should be.

But it is news that, as Wilshaw pointed out, nearly a quarter of a million kids are in inadequate schools and one and a half million in schools that need to improve - none should be.

And that teaching is less than good in three out of 10 lessons, that there is too much regional variation (East Anglia has particular challenges) and that the gap between children from poor homes (especially white boys) and others is still stark (although it has shrunk slightly since last year).

And that many other countries are on a different trajectory, improving faster than we are. That was THE story from the OECD report and few journalists missed it.

Teachers (and their pupils) in improved schools may resent what seems a disproportionate amount of media attention given to failure and not enough to success. But, on balance, better that than that the shortcomings are ignored. Better that the system is held to account, even if journalists do sometimes sift reports predictably for the bad bits.

What perhaps is just as predictable in the education story, and arguably less enlightening, is the political response. I may be showing my bias here - I am a journalist after all, not a politician - but if we journalists select our facts for the best effect, the politicians do so even more.

Ministers and their opponents are ever ready to apportion blame or claim credit, pinpoint this or that initiative as cause leading to effect, guarantee improvement or forecast deterioration - because that's what politicians are programmed to do.

But which of any government's policies is really most effective - whether changes to curriculum and testing, teacher training or school management and inspection - is hard to say. If we knew why and how much such factors contributed to making things better, that would be quite something. But we don't. Education does not easily succumb to proof. There are too many variables.

And so we - and our schools - have to let the politicians make their claims. It will only get worse as the next election approaches.