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Wednesday, 1 March, 2000, 12:24 GMT
Closure threat to failing schools
Underachieving secondary schools in England are being threatened with closure if they do not meet new targets for their pupils' exam success.
The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has said there are 530 schools where 25% or less of the pupils got five good GCSEs last year - of which 426 had similarly poor results in 1998.
His new targets are that by 2004 there should be no secondary school with less than 20% of its pupils achieving five GCSE grades A*-C, and by 2006 there should be none with less than 25% getting the best grades.
Speaking at a secondary education conference in London organised by the National Union of Teachers, Mr Blunkett said consideration would be given to closing and reopening every school that had not improved to at least 15% getting five A*-Cs over three consecutive years - the Fresh Start process.
He also announced a pilot scheme of 'super heads' who might earn up to £100,000 to work on raising standards in small groups of schools.
The Department for Education says that initially there will be 10 "experienced, high calibre headteachers with a proven track records" to work with between three and five schools each, to "tackle failure and raise standards".
The poor-performing schools will be twinned with beacon, specialist or other successful schools to give them advice.
Mr Blunkett said: "Overall results at GCSE are getting better and overall the proportion of pupils gaining five or more A*-C grades has risen to nearly 48% - up from 45% in 1997.
"We are well on track to achieve our national target of 50% by 2002."
But the results of pupils' national curriculum tests at age 14 had shown no significant rises over the last three years. In English they slipped back a little last year and in science they were no higher than in 1996.
There were too many low-performing secondary schools.
"There are 530 schools where we will be focusing our help to meet the challenges they face," he said.
"Some will be failing, some will be struggling to cope in difficult circumstances, some will be good schools that are already improving fast and achieving well in very difficult circumstances.
"The challenge I am setting will be difficult and I can already hear the cries from those who say it can't be done. We know it can and I want all education authorities to share this aspiration with me.
"We will be monitoring how education authorities are doing. We already monitor progress on the lowest performing 200 schools.
"There are cynics out there who say that school performance is all about socio-economics and the areas that these schools are located in. No child is preordained by their class or by their gender or by their ethnic group or by their home life to fail.
"It is not asking for a miracle for a school to get more than 15% of its pupils getting at least five good GCSEs.
"Is it unreal to ask you that over the next four years, given the changes we are bringing about in primary schools, that all secondary schools should get 20% of their children up to that standard?"
Mr Blunkett said that there were significant differences between schools with high numbers of pupils entitled to free school meals.
Free meals entitlement
He quoted from his department's exam statistics: of schools with fewer than 25% of pupils getting five A*-C grades at GCSE, the free school meal rate varied from 6% to 96%.
There were more than 200 schools which had fewer than 35% of pupils in receipt of free school meals on the list of underachievers - and 175 with more than 35% on free school meals which nevertheless had more than 25% of their pupils getting five A*-Cs.
"It is nothing like as simple as saying social circumstances determines performance," he said.
"That is part of the reason I am determined to make secondary school improvement a key priority in the coming months."
The Shadow Education Secretary, Theresa May, complained that "naming and shaming" was a failed policy.
She welcomed the commitment to tackling failure. But, she said, David Blunkett was again imposing things from the centre.
"What we want to do is to give parents much more power for them to get things changed when schools are not producing the sort of standards they should be producing."
In fact Mr Blunkett specifically has not named the schools on his 'target list'.
A spokesman for his department said they did not want "to turn this into a naming and shaming exercise".
"We don't think that that actually helps the debate to move on," he said.
In practice however it is not difficult to work out the schools involved from the already-published exam results.
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