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Blair's strategy for the capital

The Prime Minister has announced a radical initiative to improve the city's weakest schools. Robert Boyland reports

tailor-made plans for struggling schools, the removal of weak heads and perks to lure high-quality teachers to the capital were all promised this week by the Prime Minister speaking at the launch of the London Strategy.

Up to 50 schools could close.

Mr Blair, who sent his children to schools outside the borough he lived in, said standards in parts of London were unacceptable. He said that poorly-performing schools will be closed, and that by 2008 at least 30 new city academies, 290 more specialist schools, 20 new secondary schools and 20 new sixth-forms will be created.

He said: "We want London to lead the creation of the new specialist system we are creating nationwide, and to respond to parental demand. In inner London, three in 10 11-year-olds are still failing to reach the standard expected of their age in literacy, and nearly six in 10 are failing to secure five decent GCSEs."

The strategy will focus particularly on Islington, Hackney, Lambeth, Southwark and Haringey.

Heads will be given an improvement plan devised by the school, local authority, the Department for Education and Skills and, where possible, local business. It will set out a timetable for improvement, and schools that still fail will close. Weak heads will be sacked while successful ones will be given more freedom over staffing, lessons and timetables.

Every secondary school will have to specialise in an area of strength.

A mortgage guarantee scheme will give high-quality teachers a substantial subsidy to help buy property. To enhance their status they could become chartered London teachers or members of an elite group of commissioner teachers working only in the toughest areas.

The strategy intends to pilot a two-year key stage 3 and a package to help African-Caribbean and working class boys.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The whole package is at risk from the budgetary crisis in many London schools, which is largely of the Government's making, and from its determination to keep naming and shaming schools without regard to the extreme challenges they face."

Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Plans for more specialist schools, city academies and schools run by parents' groups, churches, charities and other organisations could mean a real danger of creating a mish-mash of education provision that will not help parental choice, but only serve to confuse the issue further."

Trevor Averre-Beeson, head of Islington Green, north London, took over in 2002. The school was placed in special measures in 1997 and Ofsted pronounced it had serious weakness in following years. This year, it received a glowing report from inspectors, with praise for improvements in behaviour and reductions in exclusions.

Mr Averre-Beeson said: "Colleagues I work with in Islington are all strong, successful heads who have made a difference to their schools and none has anything to fear from the strategy. The message is that we must be strong on success but also strong on failure."

Gary Phillips, head of Lilian Bayliss school in Lambeth, said: "The idea of mortgage subsidies and more support for middle managers are good things.

"Greater support for teachers, chartered status and commissioner teachers will make a huge difference."

Alan Wood, chief executive of the Learning Trust, which took over responsibility for education in Hackney in 2002, said: "I hope the London Strategy means more resources for Hackney schools. If it is only more 'naming and shaming' that will be unhelpful."

Meanwhile, London Mayor Ken Livingstone has announced that a new education commission will be created by the London Development Agency to look at ways to improve the capital's schools.

A consultant is investigating the achievement of black pupils in London and an action plan will be produced later this year. Data for 2002 show that black Caribbean boys are the lowest-attaining group in London at GCSE.

New solutions to ...

* 30 new city academies, 290 more specialist schools, 20 new secondary schools and 20 new sixth-forms by 2008.

* pound;7.5 million leadership development package.

* Leadership incentive grants, worth pound;125,000 a year over three years, to 279 of London's 411 secondary schools, to develop heads of department and heads of year.

lTailor-made improvement plans for turning around low- performing schools.

* Removal of weak head-teachers and more freedom for strong leaders.

* Mortgage guarantee scheme to attract and retain high quality teachers in the capital.

* Chartered London teacher status and elite commissioner teachers for the toughest areas.

* A pound;10 million gifted and talented centre for exceptional children.

* "Extended schools" which would be open at weekends to give extra support to pupils and their families.

* A new website for parents and pupils, with details of all London schools.


* In 2002, about 40 per cent of pupils in inner London's maintained schools were entitled to free school meals. This compares with 17 per cent throughout England.

* 14 per cent of inner London pupils go to independent schools, compared with an England average of 7 per cent.

* In 2002, 6 per cent of children in London schools were refugees or asylum seekers.

* In 2002 London schools' scores for five or more A*-C GCSE grades ranged from 6 to 100 per cent.

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