MORE than a third of schools at the bottom of the exam league tables could face closure after failing to hit ministers' target of more than 15 per cent of pupils gaining five good GCSEs.
Last year, 76 secondaries were struggling to reach the all-important five A* to C grade target set by former education secretary David Blunkett. He issued an "improve or close" threat to schools which scored below 15 per cent in the three consecutive years leading up to 2003. The minimum target rises to 20 per cent in 2004 and a quarter by 2006.
A TES survey of the 76 threatened schools' results this year has shown that just under two-thirds have overcome the hurdle. A total of 43 schools responded. Sixteen failed to reach the milestone.
Boys' results were often a major factor in some schools' poor position in the GCSE league table. One head said that if only the girls' scores were considered, results would be on a par with the neighbouring girls' school which is well out of the danger zone.
In Sunderland, Pennywell school's five A* to C score of 17 per cent was a 4 per cent rise on last year. However, only 8 per cent of the boys achieved top grades compared to 23 per cent of the girls. Financial incentives helped Braim Wood boys' high, in Leeds, achieve a doubling of its top GCSEs to 22 per cent. The boys were paid pound;100 for five A* to Cs and pound;50 for five A* to Gs.
At least five of the schools which have failed to reach the target have already closed or are due to. They include William Crane, in Nottingham, which had the joint lowest results in the country last year at 4 per cent.
Head Godfrey Davey said: "We have a pupil mobility rate of a fifth and are in an area of enormous social disadvantage. We were never going to reach the 15 per cent mark."
The remaining schools face intense pressure in the coming year, although the Fresh Start policy where a school closes and reopens under another name and with different staff, has been sidelined by ministers.
The proportion of good GCSEs at Fresh Start school River Leen in Nottingham dropped back from 10 per cent to 8 per cent. Firfield in Newcastle, the country's first Fresh Start school, will close this summer. Just four out of 76 pupils achieved five good GCSEs.
There are signs though that the prospect of closure could be receding. Graham Roberts, deputy head of Henry Mellish, in Nottingham, which has improved but failed to reach the milestone, said: "We have not had any signs that our future is in danger."
However, David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The situation is still as fraught as ever for these schools. Goading people into achieving better results will make recruitment impossible and loss of staff inevitable."
The Government's ultimatum has made schools so anxious that passing the 15 per cent borderline brought ecstatic reactions.
Pat Dwyer, who took over Pennywell in June, said: "You feel vulnerable from all sides. We are delirious about this year's results."
A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said: "If schools fail to improve over three years, education authorities need to take some sort of action which could mean closures or mergers."