Failing schools to be helped, not hit

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The Independent Online
Help squads, not hit squads, will be sent into 18 of the country's worst schools named yesterday as part of the Government's offensive against poor standards.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, wants to contrast the Conservatives' failure to deal with bad schools with Labour's refusal to tolerate them. All the schools were identified as "failing" at least a year ago but had not responded quickly enough to improvement plans, ministers said.

Teaching unions attacked the decision to "name and shame" schools where the morale of teachers and pupils is already low.

But Mr Blunkett told BBC Radio 4: "Education is not a secret garden. It is not a little world of its own. It is about the life chances of children."

Ten of the schools are in inner or outer London, one is a special school and four have opted out of local authority control.

Dulwich High, formerly William Penn, in Southwark, the local school where Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, refused to send her son, is also there.

Under the previous government's legislation, ministers have powers to send hit squads of experts into schools to replace the management and decide whether they should be closed.

Instead, Mr Blunkett intends to send in headteacher consultants with experience of turning round schools for between five and ten days. The new "Smart" (Special Measures Action Teams) will work alongside existing heads and local authorities. Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, said: "Our policy is help squads not hit squads. The approach is different from that of the previous government. We will take strong measures but we will provide considerable support and follow up."

If schools have not shown clear signs of improvement by September, the Government will press local authorities to close them and reopen them with new head teachers.

Ministers are consulting lawyers about whether they will need new powers to force local authorities to give schools a fresh start.

Mr Byers said: "Nothing will be hidden. Parents have a right to know if schools are under-achieving. I think when they have had time to reflect on the offer of help, not denigration, these schools will welcome what we have to offer."

He said the schools were not being branded as the worst in the country. Inspectors' reports were used to decide which schools were failing to show sufficient improvement.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Union of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, said: "We had enough of public humiliation from the previous Conservative government. The new Labour government will soon discover that these problems cannot be resolve by distant diktat."

David Whitbread, head of education at the Local Government Association, said some authorities had been prevented by heads and governors from intervening in failing schools. "We want power to intervene when we see the warning signs rather than waiting for schools to fail and crucify the children in them while we turn them round."

Donald Macintyre, page 21