Ministers are preparing the ground for a dramatic intervention at Leeds City Council amid mounting concern in Whitehall over the number of failing primary schools across the city.
Sources at the Department for Education (DfE) said yesterday that Leeds has been picked out as one of several “hot-spot” local authorities around the UK where too many primary schools are failing to meet national standards.
Education Secretary Michael Gove is demanding the city’s worst primary schools now be turned into privately-sponsored academies as he drives forward his radical education reforms in a bid to raise standards.
DfE officials said they hope to work co-operatively with the city council to implement the plan.
But they also made clear they reserve the power to impose specially-appointed executive boards to take control of schools where they are not satisfied with the progress being made.
Leeds City Council has reacted with surprise, having received no prior warning of the attack from Whitehall.
The Labour-led authority said it had had no contact from DfE officials and defended its record on primary education, which it insists is rapidly improving.
But the DfE said there are still 34 primary schools in the city that are failing even to meet the Government’s minimum standards – more than any other local authority area in the country.
Officials said this means 16 per cent of Leeds’s primary schools are failing to meet basic targets – putting it second-bottom among equivalent authorities.
A high-level DfE source said: “We will not stand by and allow underperforming schools to give children a fourth-rate education.
“Our key priority is to focus on schools with sustained underperformance in results over a number of years, or in cases where Ofsted rates them as underperforming.
“We are ready to work closely with the local authority and schools to transform the fortunes of pupils in these areas.”
The number of academies has increased enormously since the coalition came to power in 2010.
The Education Secretary has made it clear he believes converting schools into academies – giving them far more freedom over budgets and curriculum, while placing them outside of local authority control – is the best way to drive up standards.
In a speech on Tuesday, Mr Gove announced that every primary school in the country in special measures or on notice to improve by Ofsted will be ordered to become a sponsored academy.
He said 220 of the worst-performing primaries have already agreed to take on academy status. It has emerged more than 30 of those schools are in Yorkshire.
But those figures are likely to soar further over the coming months as the DfE cranks up the pressure on Leeds and other “hot spots” where it believes children are being failed by their local schools.
“Academies work,” the DfE source said. “A body of evidence shows that more freedom for teachers, more freedom for heads and less bureaucratic influence really does raise standards – and that’s the most important thing.”
Any efforts by Leeds Council or local schools to resist the Government’s demand that they convert to sponsored academies are likely to be given short shrift in Whitehall.
At Downhills Primary School in north London, Mr Gove recently used new powers awarded him under the 2010 Academies Act to dismiss the school’s entire board after accusing it of “chronic underperformance”. The board had refused to allow the failing school to become a sponsored academy.
Mr Gove has now installed a new board which last month voted to convert the school into an academy from September.
Last night education bosses in Leeds said primary standards were improving in the city and there had been no hint they were being targeted,
Nigel Richardson, director of children’s services at Leeds City Council, said: “We have not received any notification that Leeds will be subject to any special attention from the DfE.
“We are one of the fastest-improving local authorities in the country. Of the 30 Ofsted inspections we have had since January, 24 were rated as good and only one was identified as inadequate.
“We currently have our lowest NEET (young people not in education, employment or training) figures, and pupil attendances are at their highest levels ever.
“We have very good working relationships with both the DfE and our schools. We are all working together very positively and at no time have we been told we are being targeted in such a way.”