Conor Ryan: Brown is right to set tough new targets

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Gordon Brown set a tough new bar for failure. He said last week that any school with fewer than 30 per cent of its pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, in five years' time should close.

The National Union of Teachers declared the target unachievable for schools in deprived areas. Conservative schools spokesman Michael Gove claims that a "decade of top down targets has failed", implying that this latest goal will too.

And, while Brown is right to be ambitious, he and schools secretary Ed Balls should be rather more open in recognising that radical reform must be at the heart of their ambition. Moreover, for many children, apprenticeships from age 14, as well as remedial lessons in the basics, will be essential.

To see why Brown's target is achievable, one has only to look back to 2000 when David Blunkett set an equally ambitious goal. He said that schools with fewer than a quarter of pupils achieving five good GCSEs in any subject could close.

The NUT deemed the target impossible. Doug McAvoy, its general secretary, accused Blunkett of being "discouraging, dispiriting [and] demoralising" and exercising "bad judgement". At the time, there were 530 such schools. Today, there are just 26.

Take the Prime Minister's new challenge: in 1997, 1,600 secondary schools would have missed the target. Today, only 670 do. Achieving such targets lifts schools serving the most disadvantaged communities.

With the data now at their disposal, there is no reason for any school not to translate the national goal into successful individual targets for all of their pupils.

So Brown can afford to be bold. Yet his response can appear too timid. After he became Prime Minister, his spinners briefed that academies – the independent state schools being established in deprived areas – would be neutered, with local authorities calling the shots and less curriculum independence. This was designed to appeal to backbenchers and leftish party activists who fell out with Tony Blair over his trust school proposals in 2005.

But these changes in reality amounted to minor tweaks, and Balls simultaneously speeded up the pace at which new academies would open. Indeed, Brown, who has been impressed by the academies he's visited, last week confirmed 150 more in the next three years, on top of the 83 open today.

Those academies – the current ones are improving at up to five times the national average rate when the basics are included – are essential, as will be new providers to run schools, and good schools helping others to improve through federations and trusts.

But there is no room for facing two ways in public. A no-nonsense approach is needed to local authorities reluctant to countenance radical change despite their poor exam record.

So Balls will need to be ready to use his powers to force change in the best interests of parents and pupils – including new academies and alternative education providers – however unpopular it might make him with some council leaders or teaching unions. And if he is to show he means business, he should not shy away from publicising it.

Success requires other changes, too. Young people need real choices at 14. Brown hailed apprenticeships, yet only 9,000 under-16s are currently apprentices, when many more could benefit from a work-based approach.

And diplomas, which mix theoretical and practical learning, should not just be seen as an alternative to A-levels, but also as an option for all GCSE-age pupils. Of course, English and maths should be required. But work-related qualifications must be open to all who could benefit.

Some schools – particularly those with significant migrant populations – will worry about meeting English standards with pupils who have either failed to make the grade in primary school or have only recently come to the country.

Primary schools now have phonics programmes for early reading, backed by remedial teaching for those who need it. But there is not enough support in the basics to those who fall through the net; without it, they are tomorrow's truants and troublemakers.

Brown and Balls should make this a clear priority in the extra money to schools for personalised learning, and ensure that every secondary can access effective remedial programmes.

Poverty of ambition is as much a part of the failure of some schools as poverty of aspiration has been for too many pupils and parents. If this tough new target is matched with radicalism, real student choices and practical remedial help, none of the targeted schools should be facing closure in five years' time other than for demographic reasons. And Brown will have gone much further towards making every school a good one.

The writer was senior education adviser to Tony Blair from 2005 to 2007