FAILING schools will have to show improvements in two years or face closure, David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, this week warned local education authorities.
Of the 434 schools deemed to be failing to provide an adequate education, 74 have been on the list for more than two years.
Mr Blunkett intends from September, however, to use new powers in the School Standards and Framework Bill to impose closure or a fresh start on schools that have not improved within a two-year time limit.
He said: "It is imperative that a child does not languish in a school that is failing. The policy is about putting children first. Persistent delay in improvement damages the life chances of the youngsters involved."
Latest figures from the Office for Standards in Education suggest the number of failing schools is increasing. At secondary level, 4 per cent of schools inspected in the last year were deemed to be failing, compared with about 2 per cent over the first four years of inspection.
According to Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, the increase may be partly because 40 per cent of the secondaries which have been selected for inspection since September 1997 were chosen because of concern at their exam results.
The figures also show a higher failure rate among primary schools - up from 2 per cent to 3 per cent - but that might be explained by local authorities having held back their weaker schools until the final year of the first inspection cycle.
Under the procedures to be introduced, a case conference will be held once a school has been on the failing list for 18 months. The authority will be required to explain the action being taken. The Secretary of State would consider using new powers to either close the school or order a fresh start.
It is unclear how many schools could be facing closure or a fresh start in September.
Of the 74 schools which have been on the failing list for more than two years, the majority are likely to be removed in the next few months.
A school ordered to make a fresh start is closed, and another opened on the site. The teachers remain employed by the local education authority, but they could be moved to another school.
Mr Blunkett is also promising to investigate ways of guaranteeing job security to teachers who move to schools judged to be failing.
Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, welcomed the move saying that some schools and LEAs do not seem to have absorbed the messages from four years of inspection.
The teaching unions were critical, however. "If an exact two-year deadline is given, it will be even harder to recruit staff," an NUT spokesperson said.
Chris Woodhead, Opinion, page 17