A NEW report by education watchdog Ofsted this week highlighted the fact that more than 130 schools have failed to make any significant progress in more than a decade.

Worryingly for children and parents in this region, 32 of them – the largest number – are in Yorkshire, the Humber and the North-East.

Very often when such statistics are released, under-achieving schools will point to high levels of disadvantaged pupils in their catchment areas as a major cause of their difficulty in showing improvement.

This time, however, Her Majesty’s new chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills, Amanda Spielman, got her response to such arguments in first, warning that the background of children should not be used as an excuse by under-achieving schools.

Ms Spielman said: “There is no doubt that the leadership challenge facing some schools is great.

“But progress is possible and we should all be wary of using the make-up of a school community as an excuse for under-performance.

“I do find myself frustrated with the culture of ‘disadvantage one-upmanship’ that has emerged in some places.”

The report shows that more than 500 primary schools and around 200 secondaries across the country were judged as requiring improvement or being satisfactory at their last two inspections.

Of those inspected in 2016/17, 135 – including around 80 primary and 50 secondary schools – have failed to record a good or outstanding Ofsted inspection since 2005, despite receiving “considerable attention and investment”.

Ms Spielman, who called for more support for struggling schools, said they often had unstable leadership, problems recruiting staff, and high proportions of deprived students.

But, she said: “Schools with all ranges of children can and do succeed.

“Fixating on all the things holding schools back can distract us all from working on the things that take them forward.”

By way of proof, the report highlights improvements at two schools, one of which is Dixons Kings Academy which, as Kings Science Academy, was judged to require improvement in December 2014.

It joined Dixons academy trust in September 2015 and, the report says, its leaders have been “relentless in their pursuit of excellence.”

When the school was reassessed by inspectors in January this year, it was judged to be outstanding.

One factor that emerged clearly from the report is that education has to start early and language skills are right at the top of the list.

All the nursery schools that recorded an “outstanding” inspection rating in 2016/17 had “a very strong focus on early reading, phonics and literacy”.

Among the schools at primary and secondary level that consistently under-performed, “weaknesses in developing literacy across the curriculum” were among their biggest failings, says the Ofsted report.

So where does that leave a district like Bradford, where new research by a literacy charity showed that an estimated 7,800 children aged eight to 18 do not own a single book?

It is no coincidence that the findings, by the National Literacy Trust (NLT), showed that the children most likely not to have a book were from deprived backgrounds. Whether they are from the same deprived backgrounds as the ones being used, as Ofsted puts it, as an “excuse” for some schools’ under-performance, is impossible to work out without a great deal more research but it seems highly likely that this is the case.

In common with other studies, the NLT research suggested that children who don’t own a book do significantly less well on reading tests and are nearly four times less likely to read below the average expected for their age.

Not surprisingly, they also have poorer educational outcomes.

The trust, which has a hub in Bradford where it works with a range of partners to improve literacy levels in the city, has now launched a campaign to help provide the country’s poorest children with their first book this Christmas (see literacytrust.org.uk/donate).

Jonathan Douglas, Director of the Trust, said: “Books have the power to transform children’s lives, which is why it is so alarming to discover that more than 7,000 school children in Bradford don’t have a single book to call their own.

“By donating to the National Literacy Trust this Christmas, you could help give a disadvantaged child their first ever book and set them on the path to a brighter future.”

Such an important initiative clearly deserves widespread support but it’s one thing to own a book, it’s another to learn how to read it.

A YouGov survey in September this year showed that a fifth of parents with children at primary school do not spend any time at all reading with them and more than half of parents with children aged five to 11 spend less than an hour a week reading to them.

All of which begs two big questions: if the Government wants to improve school performance, why doesn’t it give free books to every disadvantaged child? And why doesn’t it do more to educate parents in the vital importance of helping their children to read?

Surely, in the long run, it would be a cheaper and more effective way to provide a better education for our children than the millions spent trying to catch up when they’re older….