Page last updated at 18:23 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Heads told: No excuse for failing

exam room
Some schools on the target list showed good pupil progression

England's Schools Secretary Ed Balls has told schools that "poverty is no excuse for failure", as he published the latest league tables.

He criticised an "unacceptable excuses culture" in some secondary schools.

As the tables showed 470 schools below the government's GCSE "floor target", he promised action where head teachers said they could not improve.

The comments brought an angry response from heads' leaders, who are already critical of the league tables culture.

The tables reveal there were 94 state and independent schools where all the pupils who sat their GCSEs and equivalent exams last summer attained the benchmark of five good GCSEs including English and maths, regarded as the key to further education or employment.

five good GCSEs with English and maths: 47.6%
girls: 52.3%
boys: 43.2%
community schools: 44.8%
academies: 35.6%
less than 30% in 440 open schools
The best was Lawrence Sheriff boys' grammar in Warwickshire whose 89 students had an average points score of 792, which equates to more than 13 A* grades apiece.

Head teacher Dr Peter Kent said the success was the culmination of 10 years' work and was not just a "one-off".

He said there was a culture of high expectations at the school, with a personalised approach to each student.

The worst maintained school was Parkside Community Technology College in Devonport where only 5% of the 37 pupils achieved five good GCSEs.

The school has now been closed, its pupils transferred to other schools locally.

This is no time for excuses - I want every child to go to a good school and that means every school getting above 30%
Schools Secretary Ed Balls
It did however have a high "contextual value added" (CVA) score, indicating how much progress the children had made since joining it.

Its CVA of 1041 - the measure is centred on 1000 - put it in the top 5% of schools nationally.

The best at this level was Park Community School in Havant, Hampshire, on 1084.5.

Pupil Oliver, 13, said: "The school has improved, and now we're top of the list, all we have to do is keep up the excellent work, and continue to be brilliant!"

Deputy head teacher Bob Carter said: "I am not only really pleased for the school, but also for the community. It is such an achievement."

But Mr Balls was addressing the schools where fewer than 30% of pupils obtained the GCSE benchmark.

'We can step in'

Of the 470 below this on the basis of last summer's results, 31 have now closed.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "In all 749 schools - including some of those who have recently risen are above 30% - are being supported through National Challenge."

Between 2007 and 2008, 264 schools rose above the 30% "floor" but 81 dropped below it, the department said.

Of the schools still below the target, 183 saw an improvement in their GCSE results, 25 schools saw no improvement and 131 saw their results decline.

Mr Balls he told journalists: "If heads say, 'It can't be done, leave us alone, this is the best kids can do', that attitude is totally unacceptable and if it requires change we can step in."

The schools secretary pointed to an official analysis of GCSE results over 10 years which showed that schools in some of the most deprived areas in England were improving faster than those elsewhere.

He said the figures exploded the myth that children from low-income families were doomed to failure.

"A high proportion of disadvantaged children in a school is no reason for poor performance.

"Anybody who says, 'Kids from round here can't succeed' is badly letting down local children and their community."

Legislation now limits the access that anyone not directly involved in compiling statistics should have before they are published and available to all
Steve Herrmann
Editor, BBC News website

The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, John Dunford, said it was wrong to castigate these schools for failure.

He agreed poverty was not an excuse for failure, but said "poverty is a reason for failure because the aspirations of the children and their communities present a constant challenge to these schools".

Mr Balls published details of measures to help National Challenge schools including special advisers and funding for extra classes.

If they still do not meet the target they face being closed and turned into academies.

But the league tables show that on average existing academies have themselves failed to meet the government's 30% target, and there are 38 in the National Challenge programme.

Mr Balls said he would "not be soft" on academies.

For the first time he warned he could use statutory powers to take over the running of any academies which failed to reach the 30% target by 2011.

The language he used was unusually strong. Until now Mr Balls has shied away from using the word "failure" in connection with these schools.

Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said: "Ministers are failing to deliver their promises on education."

Teachers' unions repeated their opposition to the publication of schools' results and to what they called the "absurd" targets.

Chris Keates of the NASUWT said: "It is regrettable that a government which has made so many improvements in education clings to this unnecessary, divisive and demoralising annual ritual. League tables should be abolished."

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