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Blunkett's hard line is softened

Warwick Mansell and Julie Henry report on the brave new world of Fresh Start which, for some, is looking like a false dawn

THE GOVERNMENT appears to be back-pedalling on its proposal that schools be considered for closure purely on the basis of poor exam results.

Last week, Education Secretary David Blunkett said he wanted councils to think about closing secondary schools if less than 15 per cent of pupils had gained five good GCSEs for three successive years.

He said 68 schools were currently in that position - and The Times followed up his comments by publishing a "hit-list".

Now, however, Professor Michael Barber, head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, has written to the 68 schools, assuring them that they are not automatically at risk.

Reports listing the schools "did not reflect the substance of the Secretary of State's speech," he said.

Professor Barber's reassurances came as authorities were urged to boycott the proposal by the National Union of Teachers.

Doug McAvoy, the NUT's general secretary, wrote to chief education officers urging them not to co-operate with the plans.

Mr McAvoy reminded councils that they are the ones that have the power to make the final decision - - not the Secretaryof State.

The Government can only intervene to close and reopen a school under its Fresh Start scheme if the school has been identified as failing by inspectors.

Mr McAvoy points out that "Fresh Start' initiatives are, at best, on probation. There is little evidence to date of their effects on pupil achievement. To seek to extend Fresh Start and to include, also, schools not under special measures, is incomprehensible.

"The potential for the unravelling of (education officers) good work in supporting schools and the work of teachers in those schools is enormous."

School standards minister Estelle Morris also stressed that such schools would not necessarily be closed under Fresh Start.

Speaking at a conference on inner-city education, she said: "We are talking about a sensible interpretation of the policy. We want education authorities to look at the future of these schools."

A Department for Education and Employment spokesman said he could not comment on the NUT's letter because the department had not yet seen a copy.

Graham Lane, education chair of the Local Government Association, however, said it was "unacceptable" that there were dozens of schools where less than 15 per cent of pupils achieved five top GCSEs.

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