Education secretary Michael Gove has signalled a major shift in the focus of his reforms, from the secondary to the primary sector, outlining plans to force the 700 worst-performing primaries to become academies.
Speaking at a National College leadership conference in Birmingham yesterday, Mr Gove laid out proposals to bring in higher-performing schools, including secondaries, to act as sponsors.
The news comes as Mr Gove announced that he will be raising the bar for secondaries, increasing the floor standard so all schools must see 50 per cent of their pupils achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths, by 2015.
According to the Department for Education, approximately 1,000 primary schools are failing to reach the floor target of 60 per cent of pupils achieving level 4 in English and maths at key stage 2 set by the previous Labour government. Ministers recognise that it is possible this number could change following this year's Sats.
But Mr Gove said he will focus on an initial 200 perennial under- performers that have failed to meet base level for five years or more, which he aims to turn into academies by the end of 2012.
The education secretary will bring in outstanding primary and secondary academies to take over the under-achieving primaries, whose improvement he views as critical to the Coalition's plans to raise standards across the board.
A source close to Mr Gove told The TES: "We believe primary schools are vital to what we are trying to do.
"Unlike secondary schools, primaries can be turned around more quickly so we will want to see outstanding secondary and primary schools coming in to help turn these schools around that have been failing to hit the floor target for many years."
Dr Elizabeth Sidwell, schools commissioner and chief executive of Haberdashers' Aske's federation, will oversee the "brokering" of academies coming in to help run the 200 primary schools.
Dr Sidwell is expected to take a less "top-down" approach to developing the partnerships between schools, making it more school to school rather than academy chains, such as Ark, being sent in to take over a struggling school.
The DfE also has its sights on approximately 500 more schools that have failed to reach the required floor target for three years or more, but they are not expected to be targeted until later.
Commenting on the wider issue of schools being forced into partnerships with other schools, Jim Crawford, headteacher of Sin Fin Primary School in Derby, said: "If a head has the choice of picking who they want to work with and it is a mutual thing then it works very well, but there can be issues when it comes to a more blanket approach."
And he added: "Sometimes I think the Government can ignore the social aspect of things when it comes to how and where a school works."
The move is expected to be met with caution from heads' union the NAHT due to schools being forced to work in partnership with other more successful schools.
The union is understood to be wary of using academies as an over-arching solution to improving performance and believes schools that have the opportunity to pair up with other schools on their own terms have more chance of succeeding.