Blunkett wins powers to close failing schools

The Secretary of State for Education will be given new powers to close failing schools in an education Bill to be included in this week's Queen's Speech.

At present local authorities have the responsibility for closing bad schools: the Government cannot tell them to take action. David Blunkett, the new Secretary of State for Education, believes that the Government's policy of closing the worst schools and giving them a fresh start with a new head and some new teachers is essential to his drive to raise standards. He is expected either to take powers to intervene directly to close a school, in consultation with a local authority, or to give himself the power to ensure that local authorities take action. Under existing legislation, the Government can send hit-squads of experts into schools which fail to produce satisfactory plans for improvement. The squad has to decide whether the school can be turned round or should close. In practice, only one hit-squad has been appointed. Ministers are this week expected to make clear their belief that a number of failing schools should be closed and given a "fresh start" unless their progress improves rapidly.

Stephen Byers, the school- standards minister, yesterday spelt out the Government's concern after studying the history of 281 schools judged by inspectors to be failing. He believes that a number of these are not making enough progress. The schools are likely to be named within a fortnight. Mr Byers said: "I am shocked that the previous government had a policy of delaying for up to two years and still not taking action when failing schools were making no significant progress." Until the new measures are on the statute books, ministers will have to rely mainly on voluntary means for dealing with failing schools, though they have not ruled out using hit-squads. Mr Byers said: "Local education authorities have to recognise that they have a responsibility in this area and we will be looking to them to discharge their obligations. They should not be tolerating failing schools." Most schools judged to be failing or in need of "special measures" are eventually given a clean bill of health.

However, the Government wants to speed up the closure of the worst schools. It wants local authorities to close schools which show no signs of improvement and to open them with a new head and some new teachers and governors. One council, Hammersmith and Fulham, has already closed a school, renamed it the Phoenix and reopened it with a new head and some new teachers.

A report on failing schools was among Mr Byers's first requests on his arrival at the Department for Education last week. Such schools are monitored regularly by inspectors to see how much progress they are making.

The Government is expected to put in place a number of strategies to turn round failing schools. Heads of good schools will be asked to take over their less successful neighbours.

That has already happened in Calderdale, where Peter Clark temporarily took over the Ridings School after discipline broke down.

Ministers have also promised faster procedures to remove poor teachers.