THE gap between schools with the worst GCSE results and the rest has widened since Labour came to power six years ago, new government figures reveal this week.
Schools at the bottom of the secondary league tables are trying desperate measures, including bribery, to drive up results of GCSE exams which start this month,the statistics show they are failing to match the improvement of the rest.
Three years ago, former education secretary David Blunkett warned that any school with fewer than 15 per cent of pupils gaining five A* to C-grade GCSEs for three consecutive years faced closure.
The Government's stance on the strugglers appeared to soften this week when it refused to confirm their closure. However, it did make clear that education authorities would have to consider radical action such as replacing them with city academies or sacking their heads.
Statistics released by David Miliband, the schools minister, show that the proportion of pupils gaining five good GCSEs in schools at the bottom of the league has gone up by just four percentage points since 1997. This compares with an average increase of 6.5 points across all other schools.
By contrast, the best primary improvers were those with the worst results.
A TES survey of the 23 schools which have failed to hit the 15 per cent target for the past two years found that six did not think they would achieve it this year. Three are already due to close. A further five said they were unsure whether they would make the target.
Godffrey Davey, head of William Crane school, Nottingham, said: "I only hope to do better than last year, when 7 per cent of pupils got five GCSEs.
To talk about results without reference to the academic ability of the intake is pointless."
Measures used by schools on the danger list include:
* paying pupils pound;60 to attend after-school lessons at William Crane.
* allowing truants to work from home at Ramsgate school, Kent.
* mentors driving pupils to school to make sure they take their exams.
* weekend study sessions in smart hotels for borderline pupils.
* a no-uniform policy for GCSE students to encourage attendance.
* holiday classes.
The schools said these were inventive attempts to drive up results in very deprived areas. Critics said they reflect the distorting effect of putting pressure on schools to hit arbitrary targets. One head said she would not consider "hothousing" certain pupils to hit targets.
The Government's minimum GCSE target for schools is to rise to 20 per cent in 2004 and 25 per cent in 2006.
Professor John MacBeath, chairman of educational leadership at Cambridge University, said: "The bottom five per cent are stuck in a cycle of disadvantage becuase they cannot attract staff, there is huge instability and turbulence and they are fighting all the time."
David Jesson of York University's centre for performance evaluation, said that schools at the bottom of the league find it difficult to attract pupils who could improve results. "We have an underbelly of schools which are resistant to the changes so far. Help for schools in challenging circumstances needs to be beefed up," he said.