The Coalition Government was accused of a U-turn yesterday after the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced a new crackdown on under-performing schools.
Mr Gove, speaking to the National College for School Leadership conference in Birmingham, warned that 200 under-performing primary schools would be shut down next year and turned into academies. The schools have all achieved less than the Government's target of 60 per cent of pupils reaching the required standard in maths and English.
He will also hold urgent talks with local authorities over measures to improve the performance of 500 more primaries struggling to reach the target. In addition, he set a new target for schools to achieve 50 per cent of pupils getting five A* to C grade passes at GCSE by 2015. A total of 870 secondary schools will have to improve to reach this figure.
However, head teachers' leaders said that the proposal was in direct contrast to the Coalition agreement, which stated: "The Government will phase out the current five A* to C indicators as the key benchmark of success arguing that it creates too narrow a focus on C/D grade boundaries with the potential of creating perverse incentives for schools."
Educationalists have argued it means that many schools have abandoned trying to stretch their brightest pupils as a result. Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We're hugely disappointed that the Department for Education has done a U-turn on this."
Mr Gove argued that the education debate in the country had been divorced from the "reality" that the UK's education standards were improving at a slower rate than that in most other developed nations.
"We have to set our sights higher," he said. He added: "My moral purpose in Government is to break the lock which prevents children from our poorest families making it into our best universities and making it into the best jobs."
He described as "essential" the measures he had announced – under which those who failed to reach the 50 per cent target at GCSE and remain stubbornly below the target for English and maths in national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds would either be closed and turned into academies or run by a neighbouring successful school. However, teachers' leaders rejected the idea that turning schools into academies was a "panacea" for improving standards. Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The evidence does not support this."
She added the proposal to convert 200 of the poorest performing primary schools into academies was "totally unacceptable – since last September (when the Government first allowed primary schools to become academies) few primaries have willingly converted to academy status".
Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, added: "Schools are being bounced, bullied and bribed into becoming academies." At present 704 schools have been given the green light to become academies.