Schools: Parents want selection not specialism

Specialism was meant to solve the problem of over-subscribed schools, but old-fashioned academic excellence is more likely to attract parents, writes Judith Judd
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Parents do not want specialist schools. That is the stark conclusion of a comprehensive review of research published today and carried out by Professor Tony Edwards, emeritus professor of education at Newcastle University. Yet both the last government and this have promoted the idea with unquestioning enthusiasm. Why?

Parental choice has become the watchword of politicians. In theory, specialist schools offer an answer to the biggest obstacle to parental choice: over-subscribed popular schools. If parents can be persuaded to spread their choices over a wider number of schools, then the annual nightmare of parents battling to get their children into the "best" schools is at an end. They will simply choose the school best suited to their children's "aptitude" - whether it be in sport, French, dance or technology.

For the Conservatives, specialist schools were a natural extension of the market to offer parents more choice. For Labour, they appeared to provide not only parental choice but also a way of satisfying middle-class parents who could not get their children into popular schools. Just as specialist magnet schools in the United States aimed to entice the middle- classes into less desirable parts of cities, every education action zone, which will be set up to raise standards in deprived areas, will have to include a specialist school. The Prime Minister has promised that, by 2002, around one in seven secondary schools or 450 in all (so far there are 290) will be concentrating on technology, sport, arts or languages. The schools will have financial advantages. Each has to raise pounds 100,000 in private sponsorship, which will be matched by pounds 100,000 from the Government and pounds 100 per pupil each year for three years. Specialist schools Labour- style also have to share their new facilities and expertise with neighbouring schools and the community.

But today's research, published by the Research and Information on State Education Trust, suggests that parents are not clamouring for these new schools. Professor Edwards' briefing paper argues: "Research into parents' reasons for choosing one secondary school over another has not yet revealed any substantial demand for departures from a traditional curriculum successfully taught".

If parents really want specialist schools, Professor Edwards asks, why are there not more in the long-established private sector? Instead, the dominant reputation and image of private education come from the academic performance of the market leaders.

Caroline Holden, a parent in Wandsworth, which offers 11-year-olds a bewildering array of schools selecting by aptitude or academic ability, backs up his case. "What parents really want is a good all-round education. They think 11 is too early to specialise, though music may be a different case."

Mrs Holden, whose dyslexic son is due to enter secondary school next year, doubts whether the specialisation of, say Chestnut Grove, the Wandsworth school with an emphasis on art or languages, is much of an attraction. "The languages at Chestnut Grove are regarded as a bit of a joke. Parents are much more interested in schools which select by academic ability and want to get their children into Graveney, which selects 50 per cent by ability. I have not heard one parent say they want to send their child to Chestnut Grove because of the art facilities."

Parents may not want schools that specialise but that does not mean the new schools will be unpopular. Though specialisation does not in itself attract pupils, the perception that they are different from other schools will. As Professor Edwards points out, city technology colleges set up by the Conservatives were not popular because of their technological emphasis but because they were better resourced and had better intakes than neighbouring comprehensive schools.

Donald Hirsch, an education consultant, says that international experience suggests that specialised schools are seen not as offering a particular type of education but as privileged, elite schools. "The danger is that we in Britain tend to see it that way, and the Government is therefore creating a situation in which not everyone can win."

Though specialist schools may have limited pull in a borough such as Wandsworth where there are schools which are academically selective, the Edwards review suggests that those Magnet schools in the US that select only by "interest" tend to end up with a higher proportion of better-motivated students than their neighbours. However, according to the Technology Colleges Trust, most specialist schools here do not select pupils even on the basis of interest or aptitude.

The Government, however, recognises that they may need or want to do so. The School Standards and Framework Bill at present going through Parliament allows all schools to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils not on the basis of academic ability but by aptitude. Stephen Byers, the Schools Minister, told the standing committee on the bill that schools such as Emmanuel City Technology College, in Gateshead, had proved that ability and aptitude could be separated. Ability "is what the child has already achieved". Aptitude is "a natural talent and interest that a child has in a specific subject", a potential which may be enhanced by a particular type of education.

Cambridge University's Professor David Hargreaves, a firm supporter of specialist schools, agrees: "It is mischievous to say that selection by aptitude is the 11-plus. In the old selective system children did an IQ test. It isn't the same as aptitude. Lots of children got into grammar schools who were hopeless at languages."

But the Edwards review concludes that, though talent in ballet and music may be assessed at the age of 11, no-one has yet found a satisfactory way of separating "natural talent" from home background and previous schooling. Two reports commissioned by the Government on the value of aptitude testing in the city technology colleges were inconclusive. Specialisation, says Professor Edwards, is hard to separate from selection. "Even the appearance of being partly selective seems both to increase the attractiveness of a school to ambitious, educated and confident parents and to skew the intake in their direction by discouraging some parents from applying at all. This has been evident in studies of recruitment to city technology colleges ..."

Whatever their social effects, some experts see specialist schools as a good way of raising standards. Professor Hargreaves says that they are a way of securing parents' commitment to education, just as church schools do, and home-school partnerships are a vital factor in better schooling. They are also a way of improving teaching in some subjects. "How many comprehensives can afford to provide several modern languages? How many are providing high-quality provision for dance?"At a time of teacher shortage, they are a way of making teaching more rewarding by concentrating committed pupils and expert teachers in one place. "A lot of our best language teachers may be in the independent sector. This might be a way of getting them into state schools."

The specialist schools programme under this Government aims to spread its benefits to neighbouring schools and provide local and regional centres of excellence. Good teaching in the specialist subject is expected to spill over into the whole curriculum. Professor Edwards argues that the case that specialist schools are more effective remains unproven; it is too early to form a judgement about most, and the above-average exam results for city technology colleges vary so widely that they suggest big differences in intake. The schools which are joining the specialist bandwagon are a motley crew and, in private, will admit to doing so for very different reasons. Some are at the bottom of the academic heap, undersubscribed and hoping for status. Others may be popular but just need the money. One governor of a school in the South-East said: "We're thinking of becoming a sports college because we're so short of funds."

Money and the perception that they are different may be the keys to their future place in the educational hierarchy. Aspiring parents may turn to them just as they did to the city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools. They are unlikely to do so because they believe that their 11- year-old is a budding linguist, actor or artist.