Government to raise the bar on primary schools

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Support for school improvements totalling £900 million has been announced by Children's Secretary Ed Balls, which will include forcing poor performing primary schools to work with more successful ones and learn from the best primary heads.

Mr Balls will be writing to every local authority, setting out his plans for primary school improvements and asking all local authorities to respond with their own plans outlining how they will help their schools to become world class primaries. Action plans would be expected from all local councils by March.

The support package for local authorities will include funding for school improvement to help outstanding schools become part of supportive partnerships with strong schools which could then become Accredited Schools Groups.

These schools would be pre-accredited as schools in a position to offer help to others in difficulties. They would get an extra £75,000 to help with this.

Mr Balls said: "If we feel that local authorities are not gripping the agenda then sanctions were something that we could look at as well."

These might include sending advisers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families into local authorities and encouraging more federations between schools.

The plans are part of the department's efforts to help schools make savings against stretched budgets in the economic downturn.

The new primary school league tables showed that out of just over 17,000 primary schools in the country 1,472 have not reached the floor target of 55 per cent of their 11-year-olds reaching the expected level of Key Stage 4 in both English and maths this year - compared to 3,407 in 2001 and around 6,500 in 1997.

However, the number of good and outstanding primary schools has increased - in 2008/9 there were a combined total of 68 per cent compared to 58 per cent in 2005/6. In English 2009 80 per cent of students achieved level 4+ in English KS2, compared to 63 per cent of students in 1997. In maths 79 per cent of pupils achieved level 4+ in maths at KS2 compared to 62 per cent of students in 1997.

Mr Balls said: “In the last decade we have seen a transformation in primary standards. Many schools have been turned around against the odds by a relentless focus on the 3Rs through the National Strategies, schemes like Every Child a Reader and better leadership.

“But we must maintain our focus to make sure that every child is given the best start in life. Every parent wants to their child to go to a good school where they can reach their full potential.

“It’s now down to local authorities to get all schools making progress all of the time and we are putting in place a package of measures which they can use to help them improve their local schools.”

Shadow children's secretary Michael Gove said: "In the week that official figures show the number of underperforming primary schools has increased, all Ed Balls can come up with is a letter to local authorities with a vague request asking them to improve."

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT said: "Ed Balls seems determined to replicate the mistake he made with his National Challenge for secondary schools - that of setting arbitrary floor targets.

"Schools in the toughest areas may add enormous value to their pupils' achievement but if they don't hit these targets, their success will be turned into government-deemed failure."