THOUSANDS OF schools are facing intervention from their local authorities under powers designed to improve test and exam results.
The Education and Inspections Act 2006, which came into force this month, extends the definition of underperformance to include schools with exam scores that are below what others have achieved with similar groups of pupils.
Draft guidance to the law says a school's standards are "unacceptably low"
if it is in the bottom quarter of schools in contextual value added (CVA) scores or fares poorly on attainment, aggregate point scores, exclusion or truancy data. At least 6,000 schools, and potentially many more, would fall within these criteria.
Those with poor results in any one of English, maths and science, but otherwise satisfactory performance, could be targeted by their authority.
Other criteria include falling rolls, high staff turnover and parental complaints.
Local authorities are being asked to support schools in the first instance.
But the legislation allows them to issue a warning notice to a school with poor contextual value added scores. Schools can be forced to work with others in the improvement drive.
In addition, councils' rights to appoint extra school governors, replace an entire governing body and take back a school's delegated budget have been extended to include all the new categories of underperformance.
Jim Knight, the schools minister, has written to local authorities, encouraging them to use their new powers. He said these would enable them to improve standards in more schools than ever before.
Lord Adonis, his fellow minister, said pupils in "coasting schools" - those with poor value added scores - may appear to be doing satisfactorily. But in individual subjects, or for individual students, the schools'
performance may not be up to scratch.
He said: "It is no good waiting for the patient to end up on the critical list when you can prescribe preventative medicine early on."
But Harvey Goldstein, professor of social statistics at Bristol University, said local authorities were being encouraged to over-interpret data.
Schools' statistics could swing from year to year as their pupils and teachers changed, making it impossible to be certain whether a school with bad results one year was worse than one with good scores.
Also, the definition of underperformance now included so many vaguely defined categories that councils could pursue vendettas against schools if they chose.
"The vagueness of the definition of underperformance means local authorities can manufacture a case against an institution. It is a recipe for chaos," said Professor Goldstein.
Professor Peter Tymms, director of Durham University's curriculum evaluation and management centre, said: "If you have these criteria, you will find lots of schools that are pretty good and yet might be struggling for one year, or in a particular subject area. Is the Government seriously going to take away the ability of the school to deal with that problem?
"Has the Government demonstrated that local authorities will be any better in dealing with it?
He said the move carried echoes of the United States's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which gives states powers to intervene where schools' test results were poor, but has had a chequered record.
Last month, Michael Treadaway, of the Fischer Family Trust, which provides data interpretation services for local authorities, said that data should provoke questions rather than provide answers.
Daniel Mason, the policy officer for the Local Government Association, said local authorities would intervene only as a last resort and would use data sensitively, alongside other information.