Failing schools plan 'is a sign of official panic'

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The Independent Online

Teachers accused the Government of panic yesterday as ministers tried to rescue their faltering "Fresh Start" initiative on failing schools.

Five days after three superheads of fresh-start schools resigned, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, said around six of the worst failing schools would be replaced by new "city academies". Business, churches and voluntary groups would be invited to make substantial investments in each and to run them in partnership with the Government.

Government sources denied that the initiative was a response to the resignations. But Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the announcement smacked of "a touch of panic".

He said: "[Downing Street] will not confront the brutal reality which is that these fresh-start schools need brilliant leadership, backed by the ability to deal with disruptive youngsters. New sponsors and fancy names will not change that." Business leaders say they welcome innovation but the project was too small to make much difference: they were interested in helping the vast majority of young people, not a tiny number.

This is the second government announcement about failing schools within a fortnight. Mr Blunkett earlier said any school which failed to meet new GCSE targets within three years faced a fresh start.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The Government gives the impression that it is seeking solutions to highly complex problems with increasing desperation."

Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, said he was considering sending inspectors into Islington Arts and Media College, north London, and the East Brighton College of media arts, fresh-start schools where heads have resigned. Inspectors are already in Firfield Community College, Newcastle, where the head has also resigned.

After giving evidence to the Commons education select committee, Mr Woodhead said: "We need to understand why it is that these three headteachers have left and learn lessons from that. Something is genuinely wrong and we need to understand it."

Conservatives pointed out that the city academies bore a remarkable resemblance to the city technology colleges that they established. These were supposed to be financed mainly by the private sector, but sufficient sponsorship failed to materialise and the programme was subsequently halted by the Treasury.

One failing school has been taken over by a private company. The Kings' Manor school in Guildford was set up by Conservative-controlled Surrey County Council.

Mr Blunkett told the Social Market Foundation: "Our Fresh Start policy... is beginning to have an impact. But in some of the most challenging areas, we believe a more radical approach is needed."

Margaret Murray, head of the learning and skills group at the Confederation of British Industry, said: "We are always interested in innovation but we are talking about such small numbers. The big thing for our members is making a difference for the vast majority of youngsters."

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