MPs: Specialist schools do not raise standards

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The Independent Online

There is no evidence that specialist schools are any better than "bog-standard" comprehensives, a damning report from an all-party committee of MPs concluded yesterday.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, has pledged that every secondary school in England should be allowed to become a specialist college. The scheme has aroused controversy since Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, remarked that it would mean the end of the "bog-standard comprehensive".

But a three-month investigation by the Commons Education Select Committee concluded there was no proof that specialist schools had raised standards or increased parental choice. Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield and the committee's chairman, urged the Government to be cautious about expanding the scheme. He said it appeared to have been adopted without proper research.

When created by the Conservatives, the programme was restricted to an elite group of schools. Labour opened it up to all schools. Schools bidding for specialist status have to raise £50,000 in sponsorship and compile a four-year development plan showing how they would use the status to raise standards. Each year, every successful school receives £100,000 plus £123 per pupil more than ordinary comprehensives.Specialist schools may select up to 10 per cent of pupils by aptitude for a particular subject, although Department for Education and Skills figures show that fewer than 6 per cent do so. The committee could find no evidence that "aptitude" was any different from "ability" and said it was not convinced of the case for selection by aptitude.

The department said the conclusions flew in the face of the facts. More pupils achieved five good GCSE passes at specialist schools (54.9 per cent) than in ordinary comprehensives (48.7 per cent), a spokeswoman said. But the MPs' report, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, said the Government's measure of achievement, the proportion getting at least five good GCSE passes, was too crude and did not give an adequate picture of schools' success.

The report notes that Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, persuaded successive secretaries of state of the scheme's merits. Mr Sheerman said the committee was concerned that Sir Cyril and ministers had based most of their arguments on research by one academic, Professor David Jesson, an economist from York University. Mr Sheerman said the committee's more broadly based research suggested there was no clear evidence that specialist school status increased pupil achievement.

Sir Cyril rejected the findings, saying that for six years the trust had published an analysis of the outcomes of specialist schools, using a variety of measures.

* Mr Sheerman also urged the Government not to close up to 23 secondary schools if they failed to hit a "crude" target this summer. All comprehensives that fail to achieve five good GCSE passes for at least 15 per cent of their pupils for three consecutive years face closure. Mr Sheerman said some of the schools were "adding enormous value to their pupils".