Failing schools: Labour sends in 'help squads'

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Autumn's White Paper will contain plans to force closures, reports Geraldine Hackett.

Ministers made clear this week that tough measures to deal with poor schools are being planned for the autumn.

The Government has singled out 18 of the 300 on the failing list and given them until September to improve or face more drastic pressure while ministers consider the legal powers required to force the closure of schools.

According to Stephen Byers, the new minister for school standards, the White Paper will contain proposals for closing schools and making a fresh start with new senior staff on the same site.

The schools identified on Tuesday are to be offered "help squads" in the form of heads or advisers. The Department for Education and Employment is recruiting professionals who have experience of tackling failing schools and they will be available to schools for between five and 10 days. (At a daily fee of pound;400). The professionals are to form what David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, describes as an elite Special Measures Action Recovery Team.

On the Government's list are 11 secondaries, six primaries and one special school. They include Handsworth Wood Boys' in Birmingham, which the local authority is planning to close in July next year, and Lillian Bayliss in the London borough of Lambeth, which has been under special measures for more than three years.

Among the primaries is Morningside in the London borough of Hackney, originally described by inspectors as having such low standards of behaviour that they contributed to making the school neither safe nor secure (see right).

Mr Blunkett insists that the Government's approach is a mixture of support and pressure. Schools are to be encouraged to consider such measures as: * changing the leadership; * drafting a clear action plan; * dealing firmly with incompetent teachers; * changing the name of the school; * adding new governors, and; * adopting a consistent behaviour policy.

Schools identified by the Office for Standards in Education have been allowed to drift for up to 18 months to two years, he said. In an interview with The TES, he said: "This cannot be allowed to happen. They have been like ships tossed around on the ocean in unfavourable winds."

The Government, he suggested, would be willing to take the legal measures required to ensure action could be taken at an early stage and that might involve allowing local authorities to over-rule governors.

However, the decision to produce a list of failing schools has infuriated the teacher unions who accuse ministers of subjecting schools to public humiliation.

Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "This is a very disappointing approach from the new Labour Education Secretary. It cannot be aimed at helping those schools improve, as he admits he does not know what steps have already been taken."

In the main, the local authorities involved have expressed a willingness to accept the extra assistance, but education directors have complained that some schools on the list are showing significant improvement. David Sands, the acting director in the London borough of Croydon, said the council has spent more than pound;500,000 tackling problems in the two borough schools on the list.

At Ashburton High, a 900-pupil comprehensive, the authority has appointed an acting head and two extra deputies to improve management. At the other school, Ingram High, there are plans to move to a new site, and a new head will be in place in September.

There are now 309 secondaries and primaries - around 2 per cent of schools - that have been identified as failing to provide minimum standards of education. The numbers will rise as the remaining 116 secondaries and 7,600 primaries are inspected for the first time.

Failing schools tend to be concentrated in urban areas, but there are a number of primaries in difficulty in rural Norfolk. The highest count is in inner London, where there are 45; Lambeth alone has 15.

According to Mr Byers, the vast majority of failing schools are improving; some are showing steady improvement, while others are improving at an impressive rate.

The 18 schools named, he said, represent a hard core where significant improvement has not taken place.

Officials from the 18 schools are to be required to present their recovery plans to the DFEE. The schools that fail to improve by the September deadline may have to accept the replacement of senior staff. Schools are unlikely to close without the agreement of their local authorities.

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