The cost of grammars: selective councils have most failing schools

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Local education authorities which have kept the selective system have the largest number of secondary schools failing to reach basic targets, it was revealed yesterday.

Kent, Birmingham and Lincolnshire had the highest numbers of schools on a government hit-list of 638 failing schools – where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils obtain five or more A* to C grade GCSE passes including maths and English.

All the schools have been told they face closure or replacement with an academy if they do not improve their exam results by 2011.

Embarrassingly for ministers, the blacklist also includes nearly a third of the new flagship academies. In all, 26 of the current 83 academies, including several which pioneered the programme and have had years to turn their exam results round, are on the list.

One is Bexley Business Academy in Thamesmead, south-east London, which was selected by the then prime minister, Tony Blair, to launch the scheme in 2003. It still has only 19 per cent of its pupils obtaining the benchmark passes. Under the Government's blueprint, all schools on the list will have "action plans" for improvement drawn up. Announcing a crackdown on failing secondaries, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, made it clear he would intervene "where an academy is not making progress". This could involve their closure – or possibly even new sponsors taking them over. However, he stressed that academies were improving at two-and-a-half times the rate of the average school.

Yesterday's report showed that Kent, which still offers selective education, had the highest number of schools on the list with 33. Birmingham was second with 27 and Lincolnshire third with 18. "There is a particular issue in selective areas," Mr Balls admitted, adding that 40 per cent of secondary modern schools had failed to reach the benchmark.

Ministers want underperforming schools to enter into partnerships with more successful neighbours – which could see grammar or independent school headteachers spending a day a week in secondary modern schools to help turn them around. Andrew Adonis, the Schools minister, said: "There are already two grammar schools that are sponsoring academies. We would like to encourage more to come forward."

But Mr Balls conceded it might be better if struggling selective schools went into partnership with neighbouring secondaries that had cleared the 30 per cent hurdle. While 67 were on the hit-list, 26 had got more than 50 per cent of pupils to achieve the benchmark.

Mr Balls's ultimatum to authorities to turn around failing schools within 50 days was coupled with a pledge of £400m in extra funding to pay for special advisers in each school and improvements in maths and English tuition. It was likely that one-third of the schools on the hit-list would require "radical restructuring" such as closure or replacement with an academy, he said. One-third were expected to reach the target and the remaining third would get there with extra help. Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, will head a special panel to help determine the schools' fates.

Teaching unions criticised the measures. John Dunford of the Association of School and College Leaders said that if the plan was to succeed "it must make it attractive to lead and work in these schools so they can attract the staff they need to raise achievement. This will not be helped by the threat of closure or academy status which will hang over many schools for the next three years."

The demise of Blair's flagship academy

*The Bexley Business Academy in Kent opened with a fanfare of publicity six years ago. Tony Blair picked it as the model to launch his flagship academy programme, claiming it was "a beacon of hope and aspiration". But the path to improved standards for the academy – sponsored by the property tycoon Sir David Garrard – was not simple. A lavish £31m refurbishment and a building blueprint from the leading architect Sir Norman Foster did nothing to bring academic success: just two years after the launch it received a devastating report from education watchdogs. When Ofsted inspectors visited in 2004, they complained of significant weaknesses in teaching. On a further visit in early 2005, they said it was "inadequate" and "poor value for money". It remained "inadequate" after a further inspection in November that year.

In its defence, supporters argued that Bexley, unlike some of the first academies, did not start afresh and inherited pupils who spent years at its failing predecessor, Thamesmead School, where vandalism and truancy were rife. Difficulties in recruiting teachers to an expensive area for property did not help. The school's last inspection in March 2007 suggested things may be on the mend. Ofsted said: "The academy provides a satisfactory standard of education." In this year's league tables, however, only 19 per cent of GCSE pupils achieved five A* to C grades, including maths and English. Significantly, its "value added score" – the measure of whether it improves on what qualifications pupils can expect to obtain on arrival – is 988.3. A score of less than 1,000 means it is not improving pupil performance.

The worst
The authorities with the highest number of schools on the hit list

*Kent 33

*Birmingham 27

*Lincolnshire 18

*Essex, Lancashire 17

*Leeds 14

*Manchester 13

*Nottinghamshire 12

*Liverpool 11

*Bradford, Bristol, Cumbria, Nottingham, Sheffield 10