The Government's tough line on failing schools has highlighted its "zero tolerance" for underachievement while sparking frantic speculation over which will be targeted.
The announcements suggest that the Office for Standards in Education will relinquish its role as the sole arbiter of school standards. Responsibility will be shared by the Department for Education and Employment, local authorities and, chiefly, the new School Effectiveness Unit led by Michael Barber.
Early next week the Government will announce that around 20 schools which have been languishing on the failing schools list for two years without significant improvement will be singled out for immediate action. They will be identified after the LEAs have been informed. Over the next few days, the standards and effectiveness unit, working with OFSTED, the LEAs and the schools, will try to discover why they are not improving. Stephen Byers, the new minister for school standards, wants to know why small primaries are getting stuck, though he acknowledges that big secondaries may be more difficult to turn around.
The Government is limited in the action it can take before its Fresh Start legislation is passed in the autumn, but measures are likely to include persuading the authority to send in an associate head and extra governors, and pressurising it to target money and advice on the school. Closure is seen as a last resort. Sending in educational associations or "hit squads" in the traditional sense is seen as pointless because they can only do two things:close the school or give it grant-maintained status - which does not fit comfortably with Labour policy.
The Government is also considering reforming the law on employment and dismissal of teachers so that an LEA can dismiss heads without having to stop delegating funds to the school. The aim is to speed up replacing school managers, which at present is in the hands of the governors. This should also allow the Government to put pressure on an LEA to sack heads. Education Secretary David Blunkett is consulting the National Association of Employers of Schoolteachers, which deals with conditions of service (but not pay) this week.
The Bill will also impose a duty on councils to raise standards, allowing them to intervene before OFSTED condemns a school as failing. This gives the Government new grounds to take action if a council fails to raise standards.
Mr Blunkett already has the power to order OFSTED to inspect local authorities. Birmingham and East Sussex have already volunteered. Labour wants the Audit Commission to inspect councils alongside OFSTED - whose role appears to be becoming increasingly diluted. The new plans would allow ministers to demand that the LEA relaunch schools under a different name, with a "hero head" parachuted in from a successful school.
Peter Millar, president of the Secondary Heads Association, said that although there was a consensus that long-term failing schools needed urgent action "the Government has not thought this or the Fresh Start plans through. I worry that there is a finite number of super-heads available to take over failing schools. If you close a school down and re-open it, are you going to make the staff redundant, and if so, where are the new staff coming from? " Both he and David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers said there is already a recruitment crisis for heads and that most successful heads would need an incentive before they would consider taking on a failing school.
The Government will not simply target schools that have been lingering on the special measures list for longest, because some are making progress. For example, Geoffrey Chaucer comprehensive in Southwark (16th longest on list) has improved its academic performance.
One likely candidate is Dulwich High School - formerly William Penn - in Southwark. Rather ominously for Labour's Fresh Start plans, this school was relaunched last summer under a new name, but a recent revisit by OFSTED found that the situation was, if anything, worse. Teaching was unsatisfactory in half the lessons and behaviour was poor. Southwark is bracing itself: one source said it would be "astonishing" if Dulwich High, which got just 9 per cent of its pupils through GCSE at grades A-C last time around, was not on the "hit list".
Last Monday, a cross-party grouping of councillors (Lib Dem, Tory and "New Labour") in the London borough of Hackney asked the Education Secretary to "intervene" to improve the schools that "Old Labour" had allowed to decline. This probably owes more to the political convulsions within the council than any new spirit of co-operation, and the Education Secretary is reported to be taking a dim view of Hackney's plea.
Kent, meanwhile, was stamping on rumours that it had been targeted. In Leicestershire three schools are rumoured to be on the emergency list, while Lambeth and Lancashire are among the boroughs with large numbers of failing schools. Calderdale, criticised by OFSTED inspectors after it submitted to a voluntary inspection following The Ridings crisis, is now completing its action plan.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the Government was more concerned with making an immediate impact than tackling teachers' problems. He said Mr Blunkett should convene a panel of classroom teachers, instead of relying on academic advisers like Michael Barber. "Suddenly these people like Barber and David Reynolds are experts on the classroom. It rather cheeses us off to be lectured by these people," he said.
There are 267 schools on the failing list; 28 have been removed and 12 closed.