Fewer than 10 per cent of schools identified as failing have managed to improve enough to be removed from the list of those needing special measures. The worst cases have been monitored by the Office for Standards in Education for more than three years.
School improvement experts agree that the key factor in recovery is appointing an effective head. In most failing schools, this has not happened. The problem for LEAs is the shortage of applicants, particularly in primary schools. A recent TES contained 175 advertisements for primary heads. Vacancies over the first four months of the year are up 42 per cent on last year.
Labour's Fresh Start project for tackling failing schools cannot be implemented without legislation. The strategy as developed by Michael Barber, now head of the DFEE's standards and effectiveness unit, would require new powers for the Education and Employment Secretary to close schools.
Any school judged to be seriously failing would be closed and the staff made redundant. A new school would open on the same site with specially selected staff.
LEAs have attempted to change the image of schools without resorting to closure. In the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the former Hammersmith School has been taken off the failing list. In that case, William Atkinson was brought in as head and paid a salary well above the rate.
He introduced strict codes of conduct for staff and students on teaching, learning and behaviour. Every lesson is subject to detailed planning, and staff are monitored.
Earlier this year, Mr Atkinson said: "We decided the best way to move the school forward was by improving the teaching and learning in school to give children a reason to come to school."
* Another model, writes Mark Jackson, is St John the Divine, a 220-pupil primary in the London borough of Lambeth. In the two years since it was found to be failing, it has improved enough to be on OFSTED's list of successful schools. The head appointed after the inspection, Chris Cosgrove, believes the staff dealt effectively with problem of poor behaviour. Senior staff, he says, provided an example to other teachers.
He says: "It worked for us, but every school is different and has to find the answer to its own problems."