Children in Swindon are being failed by schools “at every level”, according to education inspectors.
In a letter to Swindon Borough Council, head teachers and local MPs, Ofsted’s Bradley Simmons said the town’s schools were a “cause for serious concern”.
He said immediate action was needed and urged “all involved” to unite so pupils could get the “education they deserve”.
The council said the criticism was misplaced, and work was continuing to improve standards where necessary.
The letter was published following an Ofsted inspection of the borough council’s arrangements for supporting school improvement.
‘Bad’ schools claim splits opinion
In it Mr Simmons said he had raised concerns with the borough council “on at least three separate occasions”.
He said Swindon was in the “bottom 10 local authorities nationally” in phonics in 2016, while the town’s seven-year-olds were the “joint lowest performers in reading in the South West”.
At Key Stage 2, he said only 44% of 11-year-olds reached the “new expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics”, while at GCSE level only 17.3% of pupils – compared to 22.8% nationally – achieved the English Baccalaureate.
Analysis, senior education reporter Hannah Richardson
The Ofsted letter leaves no doubt as to the scale of concern about schooling in this large industrial town in the south-west of England.
Only a handful of such warning letters addressed to every organisation involved in an area’s education have ever been issued.
Mr Simmons exhorts academy bosses, head teachers, the local education authority and the Regional Schools Commissioner, which oversees academies, to join with local politicians and governors to make improvements.
This range of addresses reflects the complex modern education landscape.
Of the 15 secondary level schools in the area with GCSE results, only one is a traditional local authority-maintained school.
Twelve are academies, the privately run but state-funded schools ministers see as the engine of school improvement in England. The other two are special schools.
If the education for the area’s pupils, said to be failing at every level, is to be turned around, a concerted effort from a large range of “key players” will be needed.
“Pupils in Swindon are being failed at every level. Primary school performance which had previously shown a positive trend of improvement in Swindon is now a concern,” Mr Simmons said.
“Recent inspections of five secondary schools in the town also indicate a trend of decline, with only one of these schools being rated good.
“Of the others, one went from good to ‘requires improvement’, one failed to improve from requires improvement and two went from requires improvement to inadequate.”
In an open letter response, the borough council said it felt the data released had been “used selectively”.
It said that claims it had failed its pupils were “overly harsh and indeed unfair”.
Allison Standley is among those who have reacted on social media. She wrote: “Another blow for our very hard working teachers, how much more can they take? Parents, you have a huge responsibility too you know.”
Jacob Samuel Allinson agreed, saying he wished “more parents worked as hard at educating their children as teachers do”.
But Jessy Webster, a politics graduate, tweeted the criticism was “long overdue” as “Swindon schools were notoriously bad” when she was in Wiltshire.
Some parents and teachers have contacted the BBC to share their views.
Christel Stevens said she and her husband were teachers in other boroughs and had just transferred their son out of a primary school in Swindon to one elsewhere in Wiltshire after a “poor experience”.
She added: “He is thriving now despite reception year being wasted.”
Parent Sarah-Kate Tonkin disagreed with the findings, saying: “If you want to talk academic achievement [measurable] one of my older children has been in NATIONAL finals for Maths and STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths] this year.
“That is *not* a sign of failing pupils as far as I can see.”
But parent James Garfield described his child’s primary school as an “utter disgrace”.
He said: “When challenged as to why the school did not set homework I was informed that the teacher in question did not have homework when he was at school and he did all right – hardly the point.
“A second example was the poor spelling and grammar of a PE teacher at the school when adding information about our child to the school portal.
“When the head of year was quizzed about this, she informed me that his spelling and grammar were poor because he was Welsh.
“I believe the reason the schools in north Swindon in particular are so bad is that the head teachers are prepared to play social experiments with our children such as the no homework policy.”
Analysis – How bad are Swindon’s schools?
Key Stage 2 results, published in September 2016, suggest Swindon had one of the lowest levels of attainment, but not the worst.
The average, based on the new assessment criteria, was for 53% of children to meet the required standard in all of reading, writing and mathematics by the time they finished year six. In Swindon it was 44%. The same was true of Liverpool and West Sussex.
Luton and Dorset did worse with 43%, while Bedford achieved 42% and Peterborough 39%.
However, a look at the test results suggests Swindon was only slightly out of step with the national average when it came to individual subjects.
The England average for reading was 66% meeting the expected standard. In Swindon it was 65%.
Grammar, spelling and punctuation saw 72% of pupils in England meet the expected standard. Swindon was exactly the same.
Mathematics saw 69% of children in Swindon meet the expected standard, compared with an England average of 70%.
The problem as far as Key Stage 2 goes is that not enough children did well enough across the board.
Swindon Borough Council said, overall, phonics test results were lower than it would have liked at the end of year one, but “children have caught up and are above the national average” by the end of year two.
It said 11-year-olds were meeting the national average for reading, mathematics and grammar, but admitted writing results were “lower this year”.
And despite it sharing Ofsted’s “concerns about secondary education”, the council said “GCSE results have continued to improve”.
“By making his views so public in this way, Mr Simmons must have recognised the demotivating impact they would have on teachers,” the authority said.
“In fact it has really angered and annoyed many head teachers of good and outstanding schools who are doing an excellent job.”
North Swindon Tory MP Justin Tomlinson said it was “very disappointing news”.
“I will do all I can support both Swindon Borough Council and the schools highlighted to deliver immediate improvements,” he said.