Newall Green High on the Wythenshawe estate in south Manchester looks like a school that has been given a death sentence.
The institution achieved notoriety in 2006 when a former pupil and her parents were jailed for murdering the mother and father of another pupil by pouring petrol through their letterbox. It is now a building site, with lessons taking place in temporary Portakabins. And it's also one of 638 state schools that ministers have on their hit list because of its exam results.
The Government is threatening to close schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths. In this part of Manchester – a mainly white, working-class estate – there is not a school for miles around that hit the Government's target last year.
But, although less than a quarter of its fifth-formers managed the target, Newall Green is a good school. According to the inspector from Ofsted, the standards watchdog, who visited it in May 2007, it does all in its power to maximise the life chances of its pupils. The school was judged to be highly effective, and to have an outstanding head in Neil Wilson.
An earlier report in 2002 also praised the school, saying its pupils made better progress than might have been expected given their attainment when they arrived at age 11. But its exam results have put it in a very low-performing league.
The big question is whether the school really will close. Manchester is putting in £17m to rebuild Newall Green, as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, and Wilson is confident that the school will reach the 30 per cent target this year.
The four schools that serve the vast Wythenshawe estate – once the largest council estate in Europe – draw from the most deprived areas of the city. The estate has a reputation for being tough, but there is also some attractive private housing.
At Brookway High, only 13 per cent of 15-year-olds reached the target last year; Parklands High did slightly better at 17 per cent, and St Paul's Catholic High did best at 26 per cent. Of Manchester's comprehensives, 12 of 14 failed last year to reach the target, prompting the Government to make extra funds available to raise standards.
When he refers to the Government's determination to close the worst performers, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Schools, fails to mention that some deprived areas are full of institutions that perform poorly in the league tables. In Barnsley in south Yorkshire, for example, eight of the borough's 14 schools have failed to reach the 30 per cent target.
The solution suggested for Wythenshawe was to close two schools and reopen them as academies. So Newall Green will survive, rising from the ashes complete with a new sixth-form block.
Although its raw scores are low, the school does exceptionally well on contextual value added, an index that takes into account the background and previous attainment of pupils. Almost half are entitled to free school meals, with around a third needing some kind of extra attention for mild learning difficulties or serious disabilities.
The school's worst moment was two years ago, after Natalie Connor, a former pupil, developed an "obsessive" hatred for her schoolmate Lucy Cochrane. The feud led to the murder of Lucy's mother and father by Natalie's parents. Petrol was poured through the letterbox of the Cochrane home, killing the parents and injuring Lucy.
Incredibly, that event has had little impact on the school's popularity. Parents are clamouring to get their children into Newall Green, and families now have to live within a mile to get a place; Wilson says that 56 parents are appealing against being refused.
He can reel off a list of statistics about his 900 pupils: more than a third do not have access to a car; 230 didn't go away for a holiday last year; a higher than average number come from single-parent families.
"What can be done around here if the Government closes schools below the target?" he asks. "Children would have to be bussed to schools. It is just a nonsense."
Ofsted seems to agree. In its report, it complimented the school for dealing firmly with bad behaviour and bullying, and for the guidance and support given to pupils.
"You get encouraged by the teachers," says Tom German, 15, the son of a lorry driver and a doctor's receptionist, who is predicted to get at least five good GCSEs to add to his others in English and expressive arts, as well as his four GNVQs. "The new buildings make it better. We have got fantastic new computers."
Ofsted recognises that a school can be excellent and yet have poor exam results. At All Hallows Roman Catholic school in Salford, inspectors have praised what they say is "outstanding achievement" and "outstanding progress" by students. The head, Stephen Almond, was rated as excellent. However, last year less than a quarter of pupils got five good GCSEs including English and maths. And yet ministers couldn't close the school because, as in Wythenshawe, none of the four closest comprehensives achieved the 30 per cent target either.
Education experts are sceptical about the Government's policy. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School Leaders, is critical of the targets. "They take no account of the intake of a school, and they are an inaccurate indicator of a school's effectiveness," he says. "The Government has to accept the need for more reliable indicators that take account of value added rather than raw results."
Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, doesn't believe that closing a school and moving pupils to a newly built one guarantees better exam results.
"Half the variation in school results is determined by the intake," he says. "The other significant factor is the quality of the teachers. The new school will have the same pupils, and there is no certainty it will attract good teachers."
He believes that ministers would be foolish to close down good inner-city schools that work well with a difficult intake. "I think the approach is designed to put more energy into the academy programme, but it's a wrong way to judge schools. The five A* to C measure is not the only way. It is possible that a school with poor exam results is doing well."
Ministers want to replace poorly performing schools with academies, but there is little evidence yet that this will help. Of the seven academies that have been open longest, only one – King's Academy in Middlesbrough – has managed results above the 30 per cent target. At Unity City Academy, also in Middlesbrough, just 12 per cent of fifth-formers managed five good GCSEs in 2007. The Business Academy in Bexley, sponsored by the property developer Sir David Garrard, achieved just 19 per cent.
Stephen Gorard, professor of education at Birmingham University, believes that the Government has to do something about the social mix of schools in disadvantaged areas if it wants to shift results. "With lots of these schools, the raw results are only telling you about the intake," he says. "They are not an indicator of the impact of the school. If they had a normal distribution of ability, their results would be different.
"While schooling depends so much on where you live, there is little that can change. It is possible to change catchment areas or to introduce ability banding, but such measures are not popular. The lottery system is loathed by many parents."
The Government's threats of closure seem empty: ministers cannot close down the schools, nor can they afford to bus children long distances. The academies programme is an attempt to tackle problems in areas of concentrated deprivation where there are very few children getting a decent fist of GCSEs, but so far the results are not encouraging. Ministers recently promised another £200m for school improvement measures.
Philip Hunter, the Government's schools adjudicator, has hinted that ministers have to tackle social segregation. The way to reduce the number of schools with poor results, he says, might be to close down those with large numbers of children entitled to free school meals.
Ed Balls and Gordon Brown might think it sounds tough when they say they will close schools with poor results, but it still leaves the question of what to do with their pupils. Ministers have until 2011 to come up with the solution, which means that schools like Newall Green have three years to meet the target.Reuse content