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'Improve by 2011 or risk closure'

Budget reveals shift in deadline for schools to improve GCSEs. pound;200 million to boost progress of underperformers

The chancellor has brought forward to 2011 the deadline by which 638 underperforming secondaries must improve or risk closure.

But it seems he barely had time to tell Ed Balls. Only five days earlier, the Schools Secretary wrote in The TES that schools had until 2012 to reach the benchmark of 30 per cent of pupils achieving five or more A*-C GCSEs including English and maths.

Alistair Darling apparently had other ideas, using his first Budget speech to reveal a 2011 deadline, with an extra pound;200 million over three years to accelerate improvements in underperforming schools.

He said the schools would be supported by the types of initiative that had helped London Challenge to raise standards in the capital.

The money would "enable the best headteachers to turn round low- performing schools, create new trusts and federations around successful schools, and in areas of greatest need drive forward a faster expansion of our academies programme".

"By 2011, we will ensure that every school is an improving school meeting the standards we have set," Mr Darling said. The Government will publish a detailed strategy on meeting the target this summer.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the funding but said most of the 638 schools were not "failing". A TES analysis last month showed 250 were actually above average on the Government's contextual value-added measure.

Dr Dunford said: "For those schools that genuinely need support, more money will not be enough. The Government needs to develop a clearer, more strategic approach to support for schools in difficulty."

Willowgarth High in Barnsley has consistently scored below the 30 per cent target, with 21 per cent of its pupils making the grade last summer. But its contextual value-added scores are well above the national average. Now that the school employs advanced skills teachers for literacy and numeracy it hopes to exceed the GCSE target this summer.

Anthony Loveday, Willowgarth's head, said it was frustrating and disappointing to be labelled a failing school on one measure alone.

"I'm absolutely amazed that they are changing the target year," he said. "But I don't think it will make a major difference as schools which are still struggling in 2011 will be struggling in 2012."

There was some good news for teachers on the housing front. Mr Darling announced that shared-equity schemes for keyworkers would be available for those who could afford half the price of their new home as well as those who could afford three-quarters.

He also announced a pound;30m "enthuse science fund' to give every science teacher in secondary and further education access to high-quality professional development to help improve their teaching. The Government will contribute pound;10m over the next five years, with the rest coming from the Wellcome Trust and the private sector.

A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokeswoman said it would have been "inappropriate" for Mr Balls to pre-empt the Budget, but that the extra money was good news.

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