Schools have been left in a state of confusion about whether or not they are now on a hit-list of secondaries being threatened with closure because of low exam results.
The Government announced in June that its National Challenge scheme would provide targeted support for 638 schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieving five or more A*-C GCSEs including English and maths with a threat of closure if unsuccessful.
But the department this week admitted it did not know how exactly how many schools were on the list. One official even implied there was no list.
Schools whose results have improved above the target level may, or may not be removed, while those whose grades fell below it will not necessarily be added.
Inquiries by The TES have established that those climbing above 30 per cent will remain subject to National Challenge measures, and some schools dropping below the threshold this year could escape.
Fazakerley High, in Liverpool, saw the proportion of its students reaching the GCSE benchmark rise from 18 to 34.5 per cent.
But Nicholas Fleming, the head, said he had no idea whether he was still on the National Challenge list. He said he has had no contact about the scheme from the Government or his local authority. "I was put on a list in June. That's how much I know about it," he said. "The National Challenge was a body blow to staff, because we are really up against it, and fighting hard to raise achievement. Just to pick an arbitrary percentage and nail schools with it is probably one of the most damaging policies I have ever heard of in education."
Ben Slade, principal of Manor Community College, Cambridge, which this year has also seen its results climb above the 30 per cent threshold, has written to Mr Balls asking if there is a mechanism for coming off the initiative.
Local government officials are also confused. Peter McGaw, principal school improvement officer for Cumbria council, has asked Government officials several times what will happen to schools that have fallen below or climbed above the 30 per cent barrier this summer. "I did not seem to get a very solid answer," he said.
A Department for Children Schools and Families spokesman told The TES that all of the original 638 secondaries would stay in the National Challenge regardless of results, with the ultimate threat of closure remaining.
But in an article for The TES, Ed Balls, children's secretary, writes that schools climbing above the threshold "are no longer National Challenge schools" although they will still receive extra support.
Schools originally outside the scheme that had fallen below the 30 per cent threshold would be "strongly considered" for the programme, a spokesman said.