Government threatens 670 under-performing schools with closure

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Up to 670 state secondary schools face closure or possible takeover by the independent sector if they fail to improve their pupils' performance in GCSE maths and English, Gordon Brown has declared.

The Prime Minister set a demanding target for every school in England to reach a goal of 30 per cent of pupils obtaining five top grade A* to C grade GCSE passes including maths and English within the next five years. Setting out his vision for the future of education for the first time in his premiership, he told an audience of headteachers and academics at the University of Greenwich that he wanted to see a Britain where it was "no longer acceptable for any child to fall behind, for any school to fail its pupils".

He added: "There will be no toleration of second best in Britain, no toleration of second best for Britain."

Under his blueprint, the 670 schools that at present fail to achieve his new target would be given annual targets for improvement.

If they fail to reach them, they would be given a warning and face closure or takeover by either a top performing school in their neighbourhood or an independent school if they failed to heed it. An interim board would be set up to take over the running of the school. In the long term, it could be replaced by one of the Government's flagship privately sponsored academies.

Mr Brown said it was necessary to set "even tougher measures for eradicating failure".

Incentives, however, would be offered to lure the brightest teachers to inner-city schools. Mr Brown demanded an end to the culture of low expectations with the political right always talking of "more means worse" when it came to improved exam pass rates and the "defeatist left of centre" having low aspirations for working-class children. "Poverty of aspiration is as damaging as poverty of opportunity," he said.

Mr Brown also set another demanding target, the eradication of illiteracy, declaring that all pupils should reach the required standard in English in national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds. At present, one in five fails to do so. He added: "It can be done. It has been done in West Dunbartonshire where 10 years ago they took the decision to eradicate illiteracy." By the use of synthetic phonics, they brought down the illiteracy rate from one in three in 2001 to just six per cent last year and were on target to "wipe it out" next year.

He also pledged to offer all 18-year-olds who obtained an advanced apprenticeship with an employer at least £3,000 worth of credit a year to go towards their training. In some engineering apprenticeships, this could rise to £15,000,

This would be in addition to the £3,000 a year on offer in educational maintenance allowances to those from the poorest homes who stay on at school or in training after turning 16.

Other key points included: an increase in the number of gifted youngsters on special courses; more student "ambassadors" in state schools; an inquiry to investigate ways of encouraging students from poor backgrounds to opt for higher education; and encouraging more graduates to enter teaching.

"If you take 50 teachers, a child taught by one of the best 10 will learn at twice the rate of a child taught by one of the worst 10," he said.

His vision came under fire from headteachers' leaders last night. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it would be wrong to depend on the independent sector to turn round failing schools. "Dealing with the issues that are in the roughest and toughest schools would sink many independent school heads," he said.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said ministers should set "value-added" targets for improving school performance rather than "simply state figures plucked out of the air". He said the new 30 per cent target for GCSE performance was "significantly raising the bar" and "school and college leaders will certainly sign up to his aspirations".