Closure threat U-turn for 'failing' schools

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The Independent Online

Ministers are planning a radical new approach to helping struggling primary schools improve after fierce criticism of the way they have tackled the problem in secondary schools.

The change of tactic was prompted by controversy over their threat to close schools where 30 per cent of pupils had failed to achieve five A* to C grade passes at GCSE.

Instead, they will look at a range of indicators – including school inspections and the use of report cards showing how much individual pupils' performance has improved since joining the school – rather than judge them on raw results of national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds.

Reports by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, showed that many of the schools on the Government's "hit list" of 638 schools failing to reach the 30 per cent benchmark had been singled out for performing well in spite of serving some of the most deprived areas of the country. Others were also on the list of the 100 most improved schools in the country.

The Schools minister, Jim Knight, has conceded that the decision to set a national benchmark for all schools was at the "more controversial" end of government policies. The National Challenge approach for identifying struggling secondary schools does not take a school's social context into account.

Ministers in general were stung by the criticism of their handling of struggling secondary schools – insisting they had never meant to imply all the schools on the list were failing.

Mr Knight said of the approach towards primary schools: "We are looking, for example, at school report cards, which are looking to measure the performance of schools more in the round." A final decision on the exact approach has yet to be taken.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The bullish way they went at it last time wasn't helpful. If they are going to have a different approach for primary schools based on what they can do to support hard-to-reach children, I haven't got a problem with that."

A government inquiry into the primary school curriculum is scheduled to publish its interim report this month. Sir Jim Rose, the former schools inspector who is heading the inquiry, has already indicated to MPs that he would like to see the use of more specialist teachers in the final years of primary schooling. He has argued that the success achieved by specialist music and PE staff in improving their pupils' performance could be replicated in other subjects, such as foreign languages.

In addition, he is likely to tell the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, that he should commission a further review of the national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds. Teachers have claimed that too much teaching to the test to improve schools' league table positions has had the effect of boring pupils and turning them off learning.