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Secondary schools remain the weak point of England’s education system, despite more than 10 years of reform by Labour ministers, the schools watchdog said on Wednesday.

The government identified secondary schools as a priority for improvement when it came to power in 1997, launching a plethora of initiatives in the succeeding years.

However, Ofsted judged that 14 per cent of secondaries inspected in the 2009 autumn term were “inadequate”, with 42 per cent “good” or “outstanding”.

Explaining why secondaries compared badly with other schools, Christine Gilbert, chief inspector, said: “I think secondary schools are more complex. They’re more difficult to shift.”

Unsatisfactory secondaries sometimes have “pockets of very good performance”, she added.

Ministers’ success in transforming secondary education was called into question in 2007, when the international Pisa survey of 15-year-olds found the UK had slipped from “above average” to “average” in reading and mathematics since 2000.

However, the Department for Children, Schools and Families said on Wednesday: “Secondary school standards were flat-lining 13 years ago. They have now been transformed. Over 1,600 secondary schools in 1997 had less than 30 per cent of pupils getting five good GCSEs including English and maths. That figure has dropped to 247 now.”

Primary schools performed better on average than secondaries. Only 10 per cent were marked as “inadequate”, and 47 per cent were “good” or “outstanding”. Primary-age children in England performed well in the 2008 international Timss surveys of maths and science.

Although the average secondary performed worse than the average primary in the latest Ofsted figures, there was a particularly wide divergence among secondaries. While one in seven was “inadequate”, 8 per cent were “outstanding” – compared with only 6 per cent of primaries.

Whitehall’s highest-profile initiative for secondaries in recent years was the 2002 launch of academies – semi-independent state schools that have often replaced struggling institutions in deprived areas.

None of the 11 academies inspected in autumn 2009 was “inadequate”. However, five out of the 30 rated in the academic year 2008-9 were in this bottom category.

England’s pre-school sector was given a highly positive assessment by Ofsted in autumn 2009, with 51 per cent of nurseries “outstanding” and only 4 per cent “inadequate”.

Ofsted’s latest figures for school performance are hard to compare with previous years, because the watchdog has adopted a new regime, under which schools doing well are inspected less frequently, and schools doing badly are monitored more regularly.

This change is likely to increase the proportion of schools judged “inadequate”, and reduce the proportion deemed “outstanding”, in any given period.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “The majority of schools simply no longer believe that the Ofsted process is either fair or useful.”

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