The number of schools failing to meet the Government's new minimum targets for GCSE results will fall by at least a third this year, a TES survey of England's councils has revealed.
Of the 63 local authorities which provided this year's results to The TES, 45 reported a drop in the number of their secondaries with fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieving five or more GCSE grades A*-C, including English and maths. However, what impact these results will have on the schools' status in the National Challenge is far from clear. The 30 per cent figure was the benchmark announced in June for deciding whether a school should fall within the auspices of the initiative.
Ministers said that the 638 schools below that level faced closure if they did not surpass 30 per cent within three years.
They previously announced that the Government is investing Pounds 400m in the National Challenge, with schools promised help, from advisers to other leadership support, and Pounds 100m spent on "teaching, learning and study support".
But the Department for Children, Schools and Families has failed to clear up whether schools that lifted themselves above the 30 per cent threshold with last month's GCSE results would remain in the scheme.
It now says that there isn't a list of schools on the initiative.
Asked to clarify the situation, a department spokesman said: "This isn't about branding schools or maintaining a list - it's about ensuring the right actions are identified to get schools above the floor target and on a secure, positive trajectory."
When the National Challenge was first announced, the government attracted headlines by saying there were 638 schools on the list. The media then named them.
Our survey also revealed continuing unhappiness at the tag of "failing" or "underperforming" attached to schools as a result of appearing on the original list.
In a few local authorities, the numbers of schools with results falling below the benchmark has stood still or grown this summer. In 12 of them, the number below 30 per cent was unchanged, while in six it rose. Eleven authorities now have no schools below 30 per cent.
Overall, 192 schools in the 63 authorities were below the floor target this summer, compared with 304 in 2007. This is a drop of 38 per cent.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two largest authorities, Birmingham and Kent, also had the most schools rising above the 30 per cent threshold this year, with the figure in the former dropping by 10 to 17. In Kent the rate fell by nine to 24.
In Cumbria, the number of schools below 30 per cent fell from 10 to two. Peter McGaw, the local authority's principal school improvement officer, said: "We have been working with a number of these schools for some time, so our results reflect that. By next year, we will not have any schools below the 30 per cent."
The worst school on last year's list, Parklands High in Liverpool's Speke area, saw its headline score rise from 1 to 15 per cent.
Alan Smithies, the head, said Parklands had been close to rising above the threshold: 17 per cent of its pupils had a D in either maths or English, and a C grade or better in the other.
He said the National Challenge could deter good teachers in maths and English from joining these schools. "If you are an up-and-coming maths teacher where would you rather work, a National Challenge school where the pressure will be on you every day of the year, or in a place where you can do your job without that?" he said.
"This approach, where the Government gets the whip out and tries to drive improvement by fear, will only take you so far."
Moorside Community Technology College in Consett, County Durham, was the most improved school among those returning results. Its scores rose by 28 percentage points, from 29 to 57 per cent achieving five good grades, including in English and maths.
But Jonathon Morris, its head, expressed disgust at the way the scheme was launched, saying it had led to "failing school" headlines. "We have no problem with being a National Challenge school and sharing good practice or targets," he said. "But we have a huge problem with a deliberate generation of bad publicity in an attempt to win votes to the damage of the schools."
Dr Kelvin Simmonds, head of Danum School in Doncaster, south Yorkshire, where results rose from 29 to 37 per cent, said: "In terms of the National Challenge, extra funding always helps, but the successes are due to the efforts of pupils and teachers."
The GCSE results are provisional, and subject to appeal.