"Unacceptably Low" Secondary School Standards In The Black Country

School inspectors have written to councils and MPs in the Black Country warning too many highs schools are failing.

Ofsted say half of pupils are going to a school that's not up to scratch and in the letter they say standards are "unacceptably low".

In the letter, Ofsted's Regional Director for the West Midlands, Lorna Fitzjohn, expresses serious concerns about the standard of secondary schools in Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. She states that pupils' achievement is poor, secondary school performance lags behind that of primary schools, and that disadvantaged pupils are the most likely to lose out.

Among the issues raised are:

Low attainment
Standards at the end of secondary school are unacceptably low. Of 151 local authorities, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton are among the worst 25 in England for GCSE attainment. Dudley fares little better and is among the worst 35 local authorities in the country for secondary school attainment. In Walsall, barely half the pupils (51%) in 2015 attained five or more good GCSEs including English and mathematics, which is well below the national figure (57%). In Sandwell, that proportion was less than half (47%) and had dropped since the previous year.

Fitzjohn does however give some credit to Walsall and Wolverhampton for improving their GCSE performance in 2015.

Poor progress
Lorna Fitzjohn states that too many of the Black Country's secondary schools do not build on the achievements made by primary schools and their pupils. This is shown by the low proportion of pupils making expected progress in English and mathematics from their key stage 2 assessments to their GCSE results. All the Black Country local authority areas were found to be well below the national figure of 67% of pupils making expected progress in mathematics last year.

Poor outcomes for pupil eligible for free school meals  
The Ofsted letter goes on to say that GCSE attainment is particularly poor for disadvantaged pupils. In Dudley, Walsall and Wolverhampton last year, the education watchdog found fewer than 30% of pupils eligible for free school meals gained five or more good GCSEs including English and mathematics. Despite the low standards attained by all pupils in these authorities, the gap between pupils eligible for free school meals and others was wider than the national gap of 27.9 percentage points. Too little is being done to improve the life chances of these pupils and help them overcome the barriers to their success.

Too few good schools
In Sandwell, just over half of pupils attend a good or better secondary school. This compares poorly with the national figure of 79% of pupils who attend a secondary schools that is at least good. This poor quality of provision contributed in large part to a sharp decline in pupils’ GCSE attainment in 2015. Around a fifth of secondary schools in Sandwell have been designated as outstanding, which should provide a sound base for sharing good practice across the area. However, there has been too little cooperation between schools to support each other to improve. The proportion of good or better secondary schools is improving elsewhere; it is close to the national level in Dudley and Walsall and now exceeds the national level in Wolverhampton. 

Weaknesses in accountability
Lorna Fitzjohn says that too often, a weak performance of secondary schools is not challenged. Since 2014, only one formal warning notice has been issued by local authorities to a secondary school in the Black Country. This was in Sandwell and referred to a serious breakdown of leadership and governance rather than low standards. During the same period, just two secondary academies have received pre-warning notices from the regional schools commissioner: one in Walsall and one in Dudley. The regional schools commissioner has yet to issue a warning notice to a maintained secondary school in the area. Local authorities and the regional schools commissioner appear to have been unwilling to formally challenge secondary schools to improve low standards. 

In response to the letter, Heart's been sent statements from some of the local councils.

Wolverhampton City Council said: 

"We accept that still more needs to be done to improve standards still further - particularly around secondary education - and we are rising to the challenge.

"Make no mistake, there has never been a better time to be a pupil in Wolverhampton. Ofsted itself rates more Wolverhampton schools as either Good or Outstanding than ever before, with 83% of primary, secondary, nursery and special schools now holding one of the top two grades.

"We are making rapid improvements in pupil performance, with the progress being made by our young people among the best in the West Midlands.

"The council is also transforming Wolverhampton's educational estate, investing over £270m on secondary buildings and over £40m at primary level. This has developed high quality schools and facilities across the city and teachers and pupils have responded very positively in this investment in their future.

"We are determined to continue the rapid progress we are making, and are remorselessly focused on delivering excellence and driving every school to at least Good.

"There is still much work to be done, but the message is clear; education standards in Wolverhampton are as good as they have ever been - and are getting better."

Dudley Council's Councillor Ian Cooper, cabinet member for children’s services, said: “We are already focusing on areas in need of improvement and have discussed our priorities for getting standards in the secondary sector back on track with both Ofsted and the Department for Education. 

"We have also brought in a new schools leadership team to the authority who have been working very closely in partnership with our schools in the School Improvement Alliance.

"The Alliance has already identified the issues raised in Ofsted’s letter and have  a plan in place to address critical areas such as the achievement of disadvantaged pupils and outcomes in mathematics. We recognise that there is more to do but we will continue to put the educational needs and attainment of our school children at the top of our priorities.”

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