Not all the schools failing. Mr Blunkett's test are failing their communities

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The Independent Online

First, we should concentrate on the good news that emerges from the educational league tables that are published today. For many years, the idea of measuring and publishing schools' performance was looked upon with horror. That taboo has been broken, and rightly so. To pretend that differences do not matter is an "all-shall-have-prizes" form of madness. It is right that schools should be praised for their success and that difficult questions should be asked if results are poor.

First, we should concentrate on the good news that emerges from the educational league tables that are published today. For many years, the idea of measuring and publishing schools' performance was looked upon with horror. That taboo has been broken, and rightly so. To pretend that differences do not matter is an "all-shall-have-prizes" form of madness. It is right that schools should be praised for their success and that difficult questions should be asked if results are poor.

The extra cash that the Government has put into inner-city schools has already begun to pay dividends, with improved results in a variety of schools, from Sheffield to Liverpool. Even Hackney, the London borough that has almost become a synonym for lousy state education, has shown an improvement.

The emphasis by David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, on specialist schools has paid off, too. The overwhelming majority of those schools that have shown the greatest improvement in the past 12 months are those which have chosen to focus on one subject area. These schools are not academically selective, but they can get the best out of pupils who have very different abilities.

Overall, the trend is slowly towards improvement. That may sound cautious; but it is more than faint praise. It is easy to forget how, just a few years ago, overall improvement in educational standards in British schools seemed almost unimaginable. A collective pessimism gripped the system. The fact that the changes are now real deserves celebration.

Mr Blunkett deserves credit for his insistence that standards can be pushed ever upwards. One of his yardsticks - measuring the number of better (A*-C) grades achieved at GCSE - is in many respects worthwhile. These aims should not, however, overshadow everything else. The Government has threatened schools with closure if, for three years in a row, less than 15 per cent of pupils gain A*-C grades in a minimum of five subjects. And yet, as the analysis on our news pages points out, four out of five of the schools which, according to those criteria, would be potential candidates for educational death row, have passed their Ofsted inspections - the rigorous procedure that many teachers hate, but which has done so much to keep standards high.

This contradiction should not be allowed to stand. In dire circumstances, poor schools deserve to be closed. But each school has very different circumstances. In Copperfields College in Leeds, for example, a school where 40 per cent leave without GCSEs, almost two in three pupils are categorised as having special needs. In those circumstances, to face closure only because of failing to keep up with a national average shows no sense of perspective.

There is the danger, too, of an unnecessary diversion of resources. Additional coaching may ensure the requisite number of GCSEs to avoid closure - but at the cost of pupils who may be in even more urgent need of help.

Flexibility is the key. Measuring standards is essential, despite all the criticisms that can still be heard. The threat of special measures for failing schools can do wonders to focus governors' and teachers' attention on the need for improvement. But some schools will always have it harder than others; and it would be grossly unfair if that important lesson were ignored.

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