The Government has used a blunt instrument in its latest drive to improve school standards – namely, warning 638 schools that don't get 30 per cent of their pupils to achieve five A*- to C-grade passes at GCSE, including maths and English, that they risk closure or being turned into an academy or trust school.
Ministers acknowledge that many of the schools are doing well by their pupils but believe the time has come to blast out a message that schools should achieve the 30 per cent benchmark by 2011. It is possible to argue that some of the schools on the list, which includes 26 of the Government's flagship academies, are doing a better job for their pupils than, say, some grammar schools with a selective intake that get only 80 per cent of their children to attain five passes at GCSE. The perception, though, will be that these 638 schools are failing – making it more difficult for them to break out of their low performance or attract high-quality staff.
What is welcome in the announcement, however, is the unprecedented amount of cash announced for these schools – a total of £400m, which can be used to help form partnerships with neighbouring institutions that are more successful, and which can pass on their good practice. Much of the money will be going towards improving literacy. Would it be too much to ask that the Government looks at the ideas of the American Robert Slavin , who puts literacy at the heart of school improvement (see page 4)?
It is worth pointing out that it is not necessarily the best option for a secondary modern in a selective area to have a "superhead" foisted upon it from the local grammar school. A head from a nearby secondary modern that has achieved the 30 per cent benchmark may be more able to recommend the kind of strategies that will work with a secondary modern intake.
Overall, we are glad the Government is tackling the problem of underperformance. But a more sophisticated way of doing this might have been to look at reports on schools by Ofsted , the education standards watchdog, which measure more than just raw exam results, and to have taken into account a school's value-added score; in other words, whether it improves on the expected performance of the pupils when they start at the school.