When Firth Park Community Arts College in Sheffield appeared last month on a government hit list of 638 low performing secondaries, there was a sense of deja vu. Seven years ago the inner-city comprehensive found itself on another government list of around 600 schools with low GCSE results. That time the scheme was not called the National Challenge, it was Schools Facing Challenging Circumstances (SFCC).
Firth Park is far from the only school where history is repeating itself. An analysis by Christopher Chapman of Manchester University suggests that more than half of the National Challenge schools were part of the previous scheme.
The GCSE targets involved have become slightly harder in the interim - now the aim is for at least 30 per cent of pupils to achieve five A* to C grades, including English and maths; previously, the aim was for 25 per cent to get five A* to Cs in any subject. But the fact that so many schools feature on both lists raises questions about the Government's effectiveness at transforming underperforming secondaries.
Back in 2001, although Firth Park's results were below target, it received a positive inspection report and was considered to be doing well. Last year, its Ofsted report was even better, praising it as a good school with outstanding features. Yet only one in five pupils gained five good GCSEs, including English and maths, landing it in the National Challenge programme.
Asked why that was so, Mo Laycock, Firth Park's headteacher, starts by pointing to the school's need for five specialist primary teachers, who help Year 7 pupils to gain the basic skills that they should have acquired in primary school. She says that, until last week, three of her main feeder primaries were under Ofsted notices to improve.
It is not just other schools that make things difficult for Firth Park. Many parents are second or third-generation unemployed; 48 per cent of its pupils are on the special educational needs register; and 39 per cent are entitled to free school meals. Behind these stark statistics lie the sort of troubled home backgrounds that disadvantage pupils before they even walk out of the front door.
"It's my view that children should come to school with a good breakfast inside them and their satchel packed, having been waved off by someone who loves them and made sure they went to bed at a reasonable hour the night before," said Ms Laycock. "That doesn't always happen."
Yet none of this prevented Firth Park from being part of the National Challenge, a decision that "appalled" Ms Laycock.
She fears that, as well as failing to take contextual value-added scores into account, the scheme will not address the bigger problems schools such as hers must contend with.
"I'd prefer them to look at the wider family of schools that we work with and the communities we serve," she said.
Dr Chapman agrees. He looked at 227 National Challenge schools and found that more than half - 120 - had also been part of the SFCC programme.
Like National Challenge, SFCC offered carrots in the form of extra support, funding and external advice for struggling schools. Its stick was increased inspections, rather than a more direct threat of closure.
Dr Chapman believes that unless changes are made to the new initiative, it could be as flawed as its predecessor (see below left). Even where schools have improved, his analysis throws up interesting questions. He has found "at least one" example of a school that managed a huge rise, taking it clear of National Challenge territory, while three neighbouring schools fell into the low-performing category.
He agrees with Ms Laycock that the Government needs to look at broader social policy improvements to boost results in the toughest schools. "For a small minority of schools, the challenge is so great that school improvement strategies alone will be insufficient," he said.
Typically, struggling schools served the most deprived areas, with the added disadvantage of being in a selective area or having a high-performing school as a neighbour, he said. A classic example was the doomed Ridings School in Halifax.
But some things have improved this time around. Dr Chapman points to the greater involvement of local authorities in the new scheme.
Other experts also believe the Government has learnt lessons. One academic, who was involved in the London Challenge scheme but wished to remain anonymous, is pleased that this was used as the basis of National Challenge because "it was about working with schools, not doing things to them".
But they are still dismayed at the way the scheme was launched, with warnings of dire consequences for schools that do not make the grade.
Heads say it will make it harder for them to recruit good staff. Once again the parallels with the SFCC scheme are all too clear. As one head told The TES back then: "It's rather a blunt instrument and will hammer some good schools."
Geoff Barton, page 27
HOW THE IDEAS HAVE BEEN TRIED BEFORE
1997: Fresh Start
An attempt to turn around low-performing secondaries with new leadership and a new name. Largely discredited when the new schools encountered the same problems as the old. But similar thinking underpins National Challenge trust schools, all be it with a successful partner to help.
2000-1: Schools Facing Challenging Circumstances
Launched without the same fanfare as National Challenge, it too involved a blend of challenge and support, with help from external experts and extra money in return for producing an action plan aimed at improving results. But analysis suggests that more than half the schools involved are still judged to require help.
Combining Fresh Start with the Conservatives' city technology colleges, Tony Blair's favoured school improvement policy has received a major boost through National Challenge, which calls for even more to be opened. But embarrassingly for ministers, low results mean that around a quarter of academies are on the National Challenge list.
2002: Interim Executive Boards
Sending in small teams of professional managers to replace governing bodies is another major plank of National Challenge that has been around for a while. A TES analysis has shown that out of 76 boards appointed, only nine schools improved enough to restore control to governors. And 15 were on the National Challenge hit list.