Education, education, education... resignation?

Parliamentary showdown over school sex offenders row. Mounting opposition to minister's controversial reforms. Flagship academies among the worst schools in country. Education Secretary Ruth Kelly faces more calls to quit
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The Independent Online

Ruth Kelly faces her toughest test as Education Secretary today amid growing turmoil over government schools policies.

The Secretary of State is to give a "make-or-break" statement to MPs in the Commons over the row about sex offenders being cleared by ministers to work in schools. Speculation is mounting that she will be forced to resign later today if she fails to deliver convincing reform to the present system. Last night it was reported that one of the teachers involved in the offenders row had been given permission to carry on teaching.

Ms Kelly also faces criticism on two other fronts during the day, with exam league tables revealing damning evidence that some of the Government's flagship academies are among the worst-performing schools. Four of the privately sponsored academies are among the 100 worst schools in the country and will have to improve to meet minimum government targets for GCSE performance.

And opposition to the Government's school reforms ­ allowing independently run "trust" schools to have more control over admissions ­ will also gather pace this evening. The former Labour leader Neil Kinnock will join the chorus of disapproval over the reforms at a meeting in the Commons tonight. Opponents at the meeting ­ including Estelle Morris, a former secretary of state

for education, and the MP Martin Salter, who resigned as an aide to Jacqui Smith, the Schools minister, over the reform ­ will warn they will lead to backdoor selection by schools.

The league tables show 109 schools have failed to reach the target ­ pencilled in for this summer ­ of 25 per cent of pupils getting five grade A* to C grade passes. Of these, 39, including three academies, have not met the minimum target set for last summer of 20 per cent. These three are run respectively by a stockbroker, whose recommendation for an honour by Tony Blair is being scrutinised by watchdogs, the founder of a leading advertising agency, and a construction company. Academies run by organisations with more experience in education seem to be performing better.

In her statement to the Commons today, Ms Kelly is expected to announce that decisions on whether to place teachers on "List 99" ­ which bars them from working in the classroom ­ are to be taken out of the hands of ministers. She will also call for teachers who have been placed on the sex offenders register after a police caution to be automatically barred from teaching.

It was the decision to allow Paul Reeve, a teacher who had been cautioned, to continue teaching that sparked the row. It then emerged that Ms Kelly had personally approved a return to teaching for William Gibson, who had been convicted of indecently assaulting a 15-year-old. Last night, James Newman, a director of the London-based Step Teaching agency, said: "We have spoken to the Department for Education. It would appear they are happy for him to carry on working."

A spokesman for the department refused to comment on individual cases. A senior cabinet minister said Ms Kelly's position remained under critical examination. David Miliband, a former schools minister and now John Prescott's deputy, is the favourite to succeed her.

On the league tables, ministers were quick to argue that the overall picture was an improvement on their inheritance in 1997 ­ when there were 616 schools with fewer than 25 per cent of pupils getting five top-grade passes.

Under government plans to improve performance, all schools failing to reach the target are warned that they could face closure if they fail to show improvements within a year. Alternatively, according to the reforms, they could be turned into one of the new academies. But in the case of the four academies ­ all set up with £2m worth of private sponsorship and about £20m of government funding ­ they will be spared the axe.

The leader of Britain's biggest teachers' union urged ministers to think again about plans to expand the academies programme to 200 by the end of the decade. Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Handing over children's education to individuals or organisations that are willing to stump up £2m is not a panacea for the problems faced by schools in challenging areas."

The best and worst

Thomas Telford, Shropshire

It has been the unrivalled champion of GCSE exam success, having been ranked as the best comprehensive in the country for six years running and even beating private and grammar schools in recent years. But Thomas Telford school in Telford, Shropshire, is celebrating being ranked the top comprehensive at A-level for the first time.

The school achieved its best ever A-level results this summer with sixth-formers scoring an average of 405 points per student - equivalent to more than three A-grades each. Sir Kevin Satchwell, right, the headteacher, credited his school's broad curriculum, which saw pupils take up to seven subjects in their first year of the sixth form.

He said: "We like the idea of a broad curriculum in the sixth form. Our view was that there was enough flexibility in the existing system to introduce much greater breadth of study by using the traditional and vocational qualifications which were already available. This isn't about being top of the league tables, it's about preparing young people for life. We are confident that we are turning out well-rounded youngsters."

Sarah Cassidy

New Brompton College, Gillingham

The headteacher of the school at the bottom of today's GCSE exam league tables blames failure on a shortage of teachers.

Anti-selection campaigners say it never stood a chance because it has to cope with local grammar schools creaming off what would potentially be its brightest pupils, and serves a poor neighbourhood. The school, which props up the league table with only 9 per cent of pupils obtaining the magic five top grade A* to C grade passes, is in Kent.

New Brompton College in Gillingham is run by Medway council, which inherited its selective education system from the time when local schools were controlled by Kent county council.

New Brompton did improve, inspectors said. But Judy Rider, its headteacher, said: "The 2005 results were a direct result of a severe teacher shortage and a very narrow academic curriculum which failed to motivate or engage our students."

New Brompton shares joint bottom slot with the Headlands school, a comprehensive in Swindon, Wiltshire.

Richard Garner

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