Page last updated at 14:47 GMT, Monday, 16 November 2009

'Tough decisions' on weak schools

Ed Balls
Ed Balls says opening Academies has been central to raising standards

Children's Secretary Ed Balls wants rapid action to improve 50 struggling secondary schools in England.

He is writing to local authorities to express concern at a lack of action.

These are part of the group of 270 National Challenge schools in which fewer than 30% of pupils achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths.

Mr Balls says he expects local authorities to show they can "take tough decisions to do what is right to drive up standards".

"I am concerned that some local authorities are not making proper use of the powers already available to them, for instance using the power to issue warning notices," says Mr Balls.

'Low aspirations'

After this summer's GCSE results, the number of schools in this under-performing National Challenge category fell by 40% to around 270.

Mr Balls now wants to accelerate the reduction of this number - focusing on 50 schools which are below the 27% level and for which there are no agreed plans for "structural change".

This could mean turning schools into Academies or linking them with trusts, in which schools enter a partnership with other schools, businesses or universities.

So far this push has seen the creation of 80 Academies and 51 trust schools - with plans for 90 more Academies and 42 trust schools.

There have been 17 schools closed in this process.

Mr Balls says there is funding available for a further 28 academies to be created next year.

"The Academies programme has been central to this country's success in turning around schools where low standards and low aspirations have been most entrenched and in communities that really need a boost," says Mr Balls.

Political differences

The Queen's Speech this week will lay out the government's plans to increase the pace of school improvement.

This will be the last legislation for schools before the next general election - and the government wants to emphasise the differences between themselves and the opposition in tackling underachievement.

While the Conservatives are promising to make it easier for parents or community groups to set up new schools, the government is stressing its success in improving the current provision.

The Queen's Speech will includes proposals to increase the government's powers of intervention over poor standards.

This will include allowing the secretary of state to close schools which have not been put into special measures by inspectors.

Struggling schools could also be forced to join partnerships, in "accredited school groups", led by another institution or organisation.

Local authorities will also be expected to carry out an annual survey of parents' views on the quality of local secondary schools.

In response the Shadow Children's Secretary, Michael Gove described Mr Balls's proposals on struggling schools as "timid in their ambition and a backward step in terms of education reform".

"His bureaucratic and expensive plan to tackle failure is a damp squib. We promised last month that if we win the election the hundred worst schools will be under new management by September 2011, when Ed Balls's legislation might only be coming into effect," said Mr Gove.

"In the long term we need the whole system to be more responsive to parents, which is why a Conservative government would allow new providers like charities, parents or groups of teachers to set up state-funded independent schools while handing failing schools to the very best alternative providers."

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