Page last updated at 16:08 GMT, Monday, 18 August 2008 17:08 UK

No quick exit from GCSE challenge

National  Challenge launch, Ed Balls
Schools Secretary Ed Balls announced the 400m challenge in June

Secondary schools in England which rise above the government's exam threshold in this week's GCSE results will not automatically leave a strugglers' list.

The National Challenge requires schools to have 30% of pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths.

But even if schools climb above this benchmark they will, in the short term at least, remain designated as part of this standards-raising drive.

A revised list of National Challenge schools is expected in the autumn.

The government wants all secondary schools in England to reach at least 30% of pupils achieving the benchmark level of five GCSEs grade A to C, including English and maths within three years.

Academies

There are 638 schools currently below this threshold - with the threat of closure or being taken over for those which fail to improve after a promised process of intensive support.

This week will see GCSE results published - and about a tenth of these schools could rise above this level with only a small improvement of 2 percentage points.

Although school results will not be formally published until later in the year, individual schools will know their pupils' results this week, and from that can work out whether they have reached this minimum threshold.

But getting to the 30% benchmark on Thursday will not immediately lift schools out of the improvement programme that will accompany the National Challenge.

Instead it is expected that the schools on the National Challenge list will be re-assessed in the autumn - taking into account those whose results might have lifted above and those which have now fallen below this level.

Nudging above this 30% benchmark might not necessarily be sufficient to leave the list of National Challenge schools.

The government is planning a 400m drive to lift schools above this 30% benchmark - including the anticipated opening of 70 academies.

Failing but outstanding

In some areas more than half of schools fall into this struggling category - including in Bristol, Manchester and Sandwell, with local authorities ordered to deliver plans for recovery. Local authorities themselves could be taken over if progress is deemed to be insufficient.

Teachers' unions reacted angrily to the suggestion that schools on this list should be labelled as failures facing the threat of closure - arguing that many are already improving in the face of tough circumstances, with commendations from Ofsted inspections.

The government has subsequently sought to accentuate the positive in the National Challenge - emphasising the support available to schools and playing down the ultimate sanction of closure.

There are signs that there will be other factors taken into account.

Specialist schools with two specialist subject areas which fall below this threshold could lose one of these specialisms and the accompanying funding - but such a sanction will not apply if a school is assessed as outstanding by Ofsted.

There have also been concerns that inclusion on such a list creates a sense of uncertainty about a school's future - which will damage its ability to recruit pupils and staff.



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