One morning last November, more than 100 head teachers woke up to find that their schools had been dubbed the worst in Britain. They also faced closure under a new "three strikes and you're out" policy, unless their exam results improved.
At a first glance, the schools appeared to have little in common. Comprehensives and secondary moderns, church- and county-run schools, single sex and co-educational, were all on the list. But what they shared was that they had fallen foul of the then education secretary, David Blunkett's minimum exam targets.
Under the controversial policy, schools must ensure that at least 15 per cent of 16-year-olds achieve a minimum of five GCSE passes at grades A-C this year, next year and in 2003, or face closure. The target rises to 20 per cent in 2004, and 25 per cent in 2006.
This summer, the first year that will count towards the target, at least 38 of the original 101 poorest performers are still failing to score 15 per cent, a survey by The Independent has found. Almost half the schools (48) have improved enough to cross the 15 per cent barrier and save themselves from possible closure in 2003. But at least four of the schools have closed and several more will be relaunched under new names.
The targets have always been controversial, ever since they were first announced in March last year. Teachers' leaders condemned the "crude and public humiliation of schools", and protested that most of those who were named and shamed had passed their Ofsted inspections and so were not failing, even though their results were low.
The furore prompted Michael Barber, then the head of the Department for Education's Standards and Effectiveness Unit, to write to all the threatened schools to try and tone down Mr Blunkett's stark message: improve or close.
Since then, the DfES has been using the carrot as well as the stick. Around 500 schools "in challenging circumstances" received extra funding – worth £70,000 for many schools. The money went to about 500 schools in danger of failing to meet the targets for secondary schools that were announced by Mr Blunkett last March.
But the head teachers under threat argue that the targets fail to recognise many of the problems their schools face. Many are "superheads" drafted in to turn around failing schools, and they are angry their efforts may be thwarted by targets based on the results of pupils whose lack of success is due to the failings of the previous regime. But at many schools, results failed to rise significantly, despite threats and extra funding from the DfES.
Copperfields College in Leeds was opened in a blaze of optimism in 1996, replacing two failing comprehensives. But its results have so far failed to rise, and Andrew Hobbs, the head teacher, believes that the targets will actually make his job more difficult. "When you close a school, you affect its whole population," he says. "If a school has an uncertain future and is earmarked for closure, then the more discerning parents are going to look to send their children elsewhere.
"For the first four or five years of a school created in these circumstances, you have to add value just to keep the results standing still.
"These targets placed further uncertainty on the future of the school, which had an immediate effect on the self-confidence of the students and staff. It could actually lower standards in the schools that need support the most."
Some schools argue that they were unlucky to be put under the spotlight in a "blip" year with uncharac-teristically low results.
Connor McDermott, head teacher of Castledown School in Wiltshire, which saw its results leap from 14 per cent in 2000 to 30.7 per cent this year, believes that naming and shaming schools with poor results is counter-productive, but welcomes the flip side of the bad publicity – the extra financial support from the DfES.
"No one likes to be in the spotlight for disappointing results," he says. "It's like a stone around your neck. I would still argue that our 14 per cent last year represents a pretty good achievement for that group of youngsters. The challenge is to raise the achievements of youngsters whose aspirations are low. Patently, it isn't easy. But we can be closed or moved and the challenge remains the same."
East Brighton College of Media Arts is another school that managed to put its troubled history behind it and cross the 15 per cent threshold this summer, riding from 13.2 to 15 per cent. But the challenge is wider than simply improving students' performance – it is also about getting them into school in the first place. The college plans a radical review of the curriculum after failing to find – let alone teach – many of its students last year.
"The percentage rise was small because of the large number of students who had lost faith after the Fresh Start in September 1999, and gave up attending the college many months before the school census was taken in January 2000.
Despite a great deal of support, it was impossible to fund, let alone to enter, a significant number of year -11 students," says a school spokeswoman.
"Clearly, the college is very unhappy and huge efforts are being made to ensure not only that this year's GCSE students will come to school, but that a more appropriate curriculum is provided in the future for students who might be deterred by the national curriculum."
Betty Hasler, the head teacher of Gleed Boys' School in Lincolnshire, believes that the targets should have reflected each school's unique circumstances. As a boys-only secondary modern, she believes it is unfair to compare her school with co-educational and comprehensive schools.
Mrs Hasler argues that her school's rise from 13 to 17 per cent is a remarkable achievement because that cohort had endured the school's descent into special measures. It also clears Mr Blunkett's minimum target and saves Gleed Boys' from possible closure. "These are the results of a group of boys who were told that the school was rubbish, whose teachers were all leaving, and who were not getting any teaching in some subjects. The fact that these boys improved at all this year is quite remarkable.
"Every school wants to achieve. But setting arbitrary targets that are not related to the kind of school we are, or the value we add, is patronising. It suggests that the professional leaders of schools do not know what we are doing – and we do."Reuse content