Balls makes U-turn as 'National Challenge' launched for primaries

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Schools Secretary's demand for action on low attainment levels risks repeating past mistakes, says union

The government has carried out a U-turn on its plans to improve standards in underachieving primary schools.

Last week, Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, revealed that he had written to every local authority in the country asking them for a plan of action to bring schools that have failed to hit the Government's target of 55 per cent of pupils reaching level 4 in both English and maths at key stage 2 up to standard.

This year's Sats results showed that 1,472 schools did not reach the threshold and Mr Balls is demanding local authorities produce plans to improve by March.

But in November last year the then schools minister Jim Knight said it would be "unlikely" that the Department for Children, Schools and Families would set a benchmark that focused on raw attainment.

Last Friday, the Schools Secretary also announced that he has written separately to 12 local authorities that have had the highest proportion of under-performing schools "over a number of years", and that he expects to receive improvement plans from them as soon as January.

Mr Balls refused to name the 12 local authorities, stating that he first wanted to see what their improvement plans would be. He therefore avoided further criticism after naming and shaming the worst performing secondary schools in the National Challenge.

But a quick glance at this year's league tables, released last week and publicly accessible, reveals Haringey, Southampton, the City of Nottingham, Medway and Hackney as being among the worst performing local authorities.

In his letter Mr Balls said: "I am concerned about the persistence of low attainment and the apparent lack of progress in these schools. There are a large number of authorities in which schools face at least as significant challenges as your own, where no schools have been below the floor for more than a year."

Speaking last week, the Schools Secretary added that sanctions could be looked at "if we feel that local authorities are not gripping the agenda".

These are likely to include encouraging schools to federate, pairing high-achieving schools with those that are struggling, and sending DCSF advisers into schools. But Mr Balls stated that the legislation is available to local authorities, including powers to close down schools.

Christine Blower, general secretary of teaching union the NUT, said Mr Balls was "determined to replicate the mistake of his National Challenge - that of setting arbitrary floor targets".

Ms Blower added: "Schools in the toughest areas may add enormous value to their pupils' achievement but if they don't hit these targets, their success will be turned into Government-deemed failure."

Mick Brookes, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said: "We welcome further support for primary schools, with the emphasis on the word 'support'. We are not convinced that some local authorities have the capacity to work with schools in a manner that is going to enhance pupil achievement."

Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, said the plans showed the Government had "completely run out of ideas".

'We're going to carry on regardless'

At Grampian Primary School in Sinfin, Derby, teachers are "insulted" by the idea of extending the National Challenge into supposedly underperforming primaries.

The school is at the bottom of the league in Derby, an area ranked fourth from bottom in the national rankings; 36 per cent of pupils got level 4 in English, 59 per cent in maths and 50 per cent in science.

"What headteacher doesn't want to improve their school, and what headteacher doesn't have a clue how to go about it?" Mr Perkins, the school's head, asked. "If I didn't love my school I wouldn't be in education. I've got a top team and we are going to carry on regardless."

The statistics which put Grampian on Ed Balls' hit list are based on a class of just 15, with seven joining the school recently who were three or four years behind in their work.

"Until these statistics show what work we have done and for how long, they are meaningless," Mr Perkins said. "Last year we won an a 21st Century Learning Alliance award. So one part of the system says we are fantastic, the other says we are bottom of the league table."

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