The spectre of closure once again hangs over a hundreds of under-performing schools. Education Correspondent Shahid Naqvi examines the background to the latest Government tactic.
The latest clampdown on failing schools is nothing new. It was back in November Gordon Brown announced the latest get-tough target for secondaries to stamp his authority on education.
Labour came to power promising a relentless focus on driving up standards. They started at the beginning – with primary schools. First there were the national numeracy and literacy schemes and Sure Start.
These aimed to make sure youngsters were equipped with the basics.
Ministers came under heavy criticism for what teaching unions regarded as an unhealthy obsession with literacy and numeracy targets in key stage assessment tests.
The Government made no apology, maintaining it was unacceptable too many children were entering secondary school without core skills.
Last year 80 per cent of 11-year-olds achieved the required level four in key stage two English test in their final year at primary school, compared to 63 per cent when Labour came to power in 1997. For maths the figure was 77 per cent compared to 62.
Several years into Government, the emphasis started to shift onto secondary schools. Billions have been pumped into improving performance, particularly at inner city schools.
A scheme called Excellence in Cities was the main engine, which involved introducing measures into schools located in deprived areas, including cash for extra tuition, pupil referral units and mentoring schemes.
Billions have been committed to improving infrastructure under the Building Schools for the Future programme, which seeks to rebuild or revamp every secondary in the country.
The Government, however, incurred the wrath of Britain’s biggest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers, by effectively pronouncing the death knell to the comprehensive ideal as the way to drive up standards.
Instead, it introduced choice and diversity: choice for parents to chose what schools to go to and diversity in types of schools and methods of teaching.
Increasing the number of specialist schools – secondaries that get extra cash for focusing on a particular business-linked expertise such as language or ICT – was the initial focus.
The next leap was the city academy programme involving closing failing schools, usually in urban environments, to be replaced by a new business-sponsored school to inject focus and purpose.
In the drive to improve standards, the initial focus was on getting more pupils to pass the target of at least five A*-Cs, the benchmark for success at A level and beyond. During this period the spectre of sanctions, including possible merger or closure, was regularly raised by the Government to show schools would not be allowed to coast or wallow in failure.
As a result, claims the Government, the numbers achieving five GCSEs or more at A*-C increased by 100,000 last year compared to 1997.
Gordon Brown’s new target is the logical progression of a consistent train of policy, rather than a radical change in direction. Including English and maths in the benchmark five A*-C target was designed to put the cat among the pigeons.
Previously schools had cunningly – some might say cynically – manipulated their way up league tables by steering less able pupils away from difficult subjects such as maths and English and encouraging them to do easier subjects like media studies.
Pupils were directed towards vocational GNVQs which, for the purpose of league tables, were recorded as equal to GCSEs. A full GNVQ at intermediate level, for example, could gain the equivalent of four GCSEs graded A*-C.
Including English and maths in the target highlighted schools that were exploiting this.
The measure is fuelled by the Government’s commitment to another key target – getting half of all 18 to 30-year-olds into university.
Without achieving competency in English and maths by school leaving age at 16, pupils are likely to struggle with the greater demand of A-level study and then degree level.
With the school leaving age set to increase to 18, having these core skills becomes even more vital.
Being able to prove decent levels of literacy and numeracy is also at the core of the new work-related vocational diplomas set to be introduced in September.
Business lobby groups such as the CBI put much effort into highlighting the lack of basic skills among new recruits. The increased focus on maths and English could be seen as proof the Government – now led by the former Chancellor – has listened.
Tuesday's launch of the National Challenge is a stepping up of gear in the drive to ensure schools produce pupils with the right set of qualifications needed to power Britain’s future economic growth.
It includes a raft of what look like sensible measures on secondary schools that are under-performing. It forces local authorities to discharge their duties by producing an action plan to rescue schools that currently have less than 30 per cent of pupils hitting the new target.
In their content and the comments made by ministers in relation to the National Challenge there is a sense of blaming failing schools on teachers.
Schools Secretary Ed Balls said: “There are many schools in communities of high unemployment and low aspirations where children achieve excellent GCSE results.
“For each National Challenge school, another school facing similar problems has already turned itself around. I don’t want to see excuses about poor performance – I want to see clear plans to raise standards.”
Creation of a panel of experts in turning round failing schools to support the 638 identified by the Government in need of improving also serves to emphasise where the Government now believes the fault is.
It’s not about deprivation or challenging pupils. It’s not about lack of funding or resources. The reason these schools are failing is because of poor teaching and poor management and is, in effect, what Ministers are saying.
And it’s now time for them to pull their socks up.
You can be sure teachers – particularly those in the largely deprived schools that feature in the worst-performing 638 – will have something to say about that.
* Schools in the Midlands threatened with closure, with the percentage of pupils gaining five GCSEs graded A*-C, including English and Maths:
Turves Green Boys’ Technology and Humanities College (29)
Lordswood Boys’ School (28)
Aston Manor School (28)
Hillcrest School A Specialist Maths and Computing College and Sixth Form Centre (28)
The Heartlands High School (27)
Moseley School A Language College (27)
Saltley School and Specialist Science College (26)
Kings Heath Boys Mathematics and Computing College (26)
Shenley Court Specialist Arts College and Sixth Form Centre (25)
Baverstock Foundation School and Specialist Sports College (25)
Dame Elizabeth Cadbury Technology College (24)
Kingsbury School and Sports College (24)
Broadway School (24)
The International School and Community College, East Birmingham (24)
Yardleys School (24)
Harborne Hill School (22)
Stockland Green Technology College (22)
Waverley School (21)
Perry Beeches School (21)
St Alban’s CE Specialist Engineering College (20)
Sheldon Heath Community Arts College (20)
Four Dwellings High School (19)
Castle Vale School and Specialist Performing Arts College (18)
Hodge Hill School (17)
Frankley Community High School (16)
The College High Specialist Arts School (16)
Kings Norton High School (13)
Barr’s Hill School and Community College (29)
Whitley Abbey Business and Enterprise College (29)
President Kennedy School - a Humanities College (29)
Sidney Stringer School - Specialising in Mathematics and Computing (27)
Ernesford Grange Community School A Specialist Science College (25)
Foxford School and Community Arts College (25)
Lyng Hall School (23)
Castle High School and Visual Arts College (27)
The Coseley School (24)
The Wordsley School (21)
Holly Lodge High School College of Science (29)
Bristnall Hall Technology College (28)
The Heathfield Foundation Technology College (26)
Alexandra High School and Sixth Form Centre (26)
St Michael’s CofE High School (26)
Wodensborough Community Technology College (26)
Tividale Community Arts College (24)
Menzies High School (19)
Manor Foundation Business and Sports College (13)
The Grange School (29)
Park Hall School (29)
The Archbishop Grimshaw Catholic School (22)
Smith’s Wood Sports College (21)
Grace Academy (19)
Paulet High School (23)
Stafford Sports College (20)
Blake Valley Technology College (16)
Birches Head High School (27)
Mitchell High School (23)
Longton High School & Arts College (23)
James Brindley High School (22)
Berry Hill High School and Sports College (18)
* Telford and Wrekin
Hadley Learning Community - Secondary Phase (29)
Wrockwardine Wood Arts College (26)
Blessed Robert Johnson Catholic College (23)
The Phoenix School (22)
Abraham Darby Specialist School for Performing Arts (22)
The Lord Silkin School (17)
Willenhall School Sports College (29)
Pool Hayes Arts & Community School (29)
Blue Coat Church of England Comprehensive School A Performing Arts Specialist College (26)
Alumwell Business and Enterprise College (26)
St Thomas More Catholic School, Willenhall (25)
Darlaston Community Science College (23)
Shelfield Sports and Community College (20)
Frank F Harrison Engineering College (18)
Sneyd Community School (17)
Ash Green School (29)
George Eliot Community School (28)
Hartshill School (27)
Campion School and Community College (25)
Manor Park Community School and Specialist Arts College (15)
The Northicote School (28)
Moseley Park School (26)
Coppice Performing Arts School (25)
Wednesfield High School (22)
Parkfield High School (21)
Pendeford Business and Enterprise College (20)
Arrow Vale Community High School - a Specialist Sports College (29)
Trinity High School and Sixth Form Centre (24)