Schools struggling to meet new GCSE criteria by 2011 need careful handling by Whitehall's latest targets unit
If you are travelling to a place for the first time, it's a good idea to plot your route first. But the Government seems to have overlooked this conventional wisdom when it announced that 631 secondaries where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieve five good GCSEs must meet that benchmark by 2011.
In fact, the original timescale was 2012. One would like to think that bringing the deadline forward a year was based on sophisticated modelling on what was deliverable. But it is all too clear that it was dictated by political expediency. It seems to have come from the school of target setting that the Treasury said it was dumping - the one that says: "I want this to happen - ergo, it must happen."
There are two other fundamental problems: how to reduce the number of schools failing to meet the target, and the nature of the target itself.
School support has become contested territory. For any one school, those involved might include the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the National Strategies, city challenge (in London, Manchester or the Black Country), national leaders of education, Ofsted, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), the local authority and the school improvement partner (Sip).
Whitehall is represented in this by the department's school improvement and targets unit, now renamed the school improvement division (Sid). But it is at sixes and sevens about how to deliver that 30 per cent target.
The Government has handed over responsibility for school improvement to local authorities, but as commissioners not providers. The role of Sips is to challenge and support schools. When external support is required, they and local authorities have to broker it. But there is no clear map of where that potential support exists. The department has created the maximum amount of confusion.
First, there are the structuralists, who believe the answer is to change the status of a large number of the 631 schools by turning them into academies. Making a school part of a federation of academies could prove to be an effective tactic. But setting up an academy takes time - particularly if it is going to address the underlying factors that affect educational achievement.
The unseemly haste with which some academies are being opened risks devaluing the brand and is unlikely to deliver sustainable improvement.
Another strategy favoured by the structuralists is to incorporate some of these 631 schools into trusts run by higher-performing schools. That is sometimes an appropriate option, but the test should be whether the schools have the expertise for the task. Like academies, trusts take time to build - and the 2011 deadline offers little time.
Then there are the pragmatists, who want to put successful leaders into a variety of roles in challenging schools, but without defining the endgame. Several such schemes already exist.
The National College for School Leadership (NCSL)'s London leadership strategy has worked extremely effectively by pairing successful schools with those that are challenged. Such partnerships raise achievement in both schools.
The National Strategies also have a role, but should not become directly involved with the 631 schools. Instead, they should devolve resources to school partnerships after the latter have devised an appropriate strategy.
The SSAT has its leading schools, many of which have experience of supporting other establishments. As a board member, I would hope its programmes have a role to play.
But the natural starting point for constructing a coherent strategy is surely the national leaders of education scheme - with its associated national support schools network - which was created precisely for this purpose. The 631 struggling schools have different needs, and the NCSL has the information to match each school's requirements to the support school with the optimum range of skills.
It is not clear how twinning under the academies programme - which is almost identical to this one, but better funded - fits into this picture.
Heads of these schools are confused too, finding themselves accountable to up to five different bodies and being subject to intervention from multiple agencies, often all setting different targets and timescales.
Within the 631 schools, different levels of support are required. But of greater importance is the underpinning principle for school support, which should be about building the school's capacity to improve itself, so it does not become dependent on external support long term.
The work of Robert Hill, published by the Association of School and College Leaders in January, showed conclusively that support federations - whereby high-performing schools use a structured system to support struggling or weaker schools - were the surest, quickest and most sustainable way of tackling school improvement. And the NCSL is doing a great job of expanding this system and ensuring that it adheres to sound principles.
As well as the timescale and support mechanism, there is also a problem with the target itself. It is entirely reasonable for the Government to press for improved educational performance. But using five good GCSEs as the only barometer of progress is crude and flies in the face of ministers' own strategy of broadening the curriculum.
The need for a more intelligent measure of school achievement is clear, given that a significant number of the 631 are the non-selective schools in selective, or partially selective areas.
The arbitrariness of the 30 per cent target becomes apparent when you realise that the contextual value-added scores of 250 of the 631 schools is above 1,000. So, using the Government's most sophisticated performance measure, they are above average.
To misquote the famous British Gas privatisation slogan, someone please do tell Sid that the answer to the problem of how to support the 631 struggling schools already exists. All Sid has to do is read its own research and develop its own programme along the lines of the national leaders of education scheme.
John Dunford, General secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.