More schools pass the Ofsted test

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THE NUMBER of failing schools is falling for the first time, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, will tell a teachers' union conference today.

Mr Blunkett will deliver a tough speech to the National Union of Teachers' conference in Brighton, reminding delegates that the Government's policy on bad schools, which the union fiercely opposes, is working. He will also defend his plans to introduce performance-related pay for teachers just before the conference votes on a motion backing a one-day national strike in protest at the proposals.

Four years ago, Mr Blunkett was jostled into a cupboard by union left- wingers at the conference after he said Labour would close failing schools and sack incompetent teachers.

Now, Mr Blunkett says, for the first time in five years, there are more schools coming off "special measures", the inspectors' label for failing schools, than are being put on.

During the past two terms, 135 schools have been failed by inspectors and 147 have been given a clean bill of health. Six have closed. The average turnaround time has been cut from 25 to 18 months and 37 schools that have been failing for more than two years will be closed or out of difficulties by the end of the summer term.

Mr Blunkett's reminder of his previous clash with the union comes as he is about to cross swords with it over the even more explosive issue of performance-related pay, proposed in a Green Paper last year.

Conference delegates are expected to vote today for a motion backed by their leaders to ballot members over a boycott of the new appraisal system that underpins the Green Paper, and for the first national one- day strike to be held by the union for 30 years.

Last night Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, warned that the Government would jeopardise its agenda for raising standards if it imposed performance-related pay on an unwilling profession.

Though a one-day strike would not affect public exams, it might disrupt national tests in May for pupils aged 11 and 14, Mr McAvoy warned.

The new national literacy strategy, designed to help ministers to achieve ambitious targets, would also be threatened, he said.

So far, the union has co-operated with the strategy, despite complaints from members that it is too bureaucratic and that they have not been properly trained.

Mr McAvoy said: "The union's opposition to the use of appraisal for pay is total, its opposition to performance-related pay is total and its opposition to payment by results is total. There is no compromise to be had. If the Government rides roughshod over the profession's views, it can't then turn to the profession and say `help us'."

The union, he said, would aim to convince parents that the reintroduction of the Victorian idea of payment by results would do more to harm education than the disruption required to stop it.

A government spokeswoman said: "Parents will be horrified that the teachers' union will take strike action when the Government is offering up to a pounds 2,000 pay rise to reward good teachers."

David Willetts, shadow secretary of state for education, told the conference that the Government's proposals on performance-related pay were unworkable. The 25,000 responses to the Green Paper consultation should be scrutinised by outside experts.