National challenge: Plan to help 638 secondaries with the worst GCSE results - Closures may be announced in the autumn - Good CVA scores could save some schools
Hundreds of secondary schools with low GCSE results may find out by Christmas that they are to be closed or replaced - nearly three years earlier than expected.
Until this week, schools with fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieving A* to C GCSE grades, including English and maths, thought they had until 2011 to show improvement.
But launching the pound;400 million National Challenge campaign to help those schools this week, Ed Balls, Children, Schools and Families Secretary, suggested that schools could have their fates decided next term.
He believes the fate of some of the schools could be sealed in the autumn when he expects to see "clear evidence" that they need "structural change".
Local authorities have until the end of this term to draw up action plans for the schools, and ministers said it would be up to them to choose which ones needed to close or change.
However, it is clear that ministers have already formed their own view. Mr Balls said a third of the schools lacked strong leadership, were dogged by low expectations and needed "radical changes".
Mr Balls said that 240 of the schools had less than a quarter of pupils meeting the GCSE benchmark for the past three years
Asked if closures would start from 2011, he said: "Well, no I don't think so at all. It is very important that we don't have feet-dragging."
Ministers would be prepared to use new powers to force local authorities to intervene from the autumn term, he said, and councils should act with the same speed.
"If we are going to get academies opening in 2010, then they really need be engaging in the process by Christmas," he said.
Half of the pound;400m will pay for 70 of the schools to be converted into academies. It will also allow another 120 to be converted into trust schools, which would give them the control over budgets and staffing enjoyed by foundation schools and allow them to be linked through a trust to businesses or universities.
Of these, 70 could be National Challenge Trusts, a new category that would mean replacing the existing school with a new school linked through its trust to a strong high-performing neighbour.
Of the supposedly "failing" 638 schools, 250 have high contextual value-added (CVA) scores.
Asked by The TES if these scores could work in their favour, Mr Balls said: "Absolutely - this is not about failing schools. There are a large number of these schools that are high-achieving, successful schools.
"We think about a third of these schools are low-risk schools with high CVA, which will get above 30 per cent without extra intensive help."
The Government believes there is a middle third of schools that will benefit from more support for their leaders and teachers being offered by the National Challenge.
Each of the 638 secondaries will have a National Challenge adviser to "support and challenge" them. They could be existing school improvement partners or even an independent school head.
The approach is based on the London Challenge, which has controversially advised some schools to concentrate on raising the attainment of borderline CD pupils.
Teachers' unions welcomed the extra funding, but not the closure threats. Christine Blower, of the National Union of Teachers, said: "No head or teacher mindful of their career will join a National Challenge school if they think it will be closed and turned into an academy the following year."