Specialist arts and language schools are failing to keep high standards, says Ofsted

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The Independent Online

Many specialist schools are failing to raise standards in their specialist subjects, according to a study published by Ofsted, the education watchdog.

Many specialist schools are failing to raise standards in their specialist subjects, according to a study published by Ofsted, the education watchdog. Secondary schools which have been given extra funding to specialise in the arts actually achieve lower GCSE results in drams and music than other schools, the official analysis of the flagship Government programme found yesterday.

Arts colleges' results in these subjects have also fallen since 2001. Language colleges' results in GCSE French, German and Spanish also fell, although they remained well ahead of other schools, according to Ofsted's study of specialist schools since 2001

Meanwhile, lessons for the very brightest children are "unsatisfactory" in nearly one in five specialist schools, according to the detailed analysis by Ofsted inspectors. Sports colleges still have a slight lead over other schools in PE GCSE pass rates but the gap has narrowed since 2001 as other schools catch up.

Inspectors noted with concern that half of specialist colleges failed to meet their targets for improving GCSE passes in their specialist subjects.

However, overall the picture was positive with specialist schools performing better than other schools on average. Pupils in specialist schools have performed better at GCSE overall than pupils in other schools since 1998 and the rate of improvement continued to be faster, on average, than in other schools. But the rate of improvement in specialist subjects had levelled off during the past three years and in some subjects had declined.

Inspectors also found no improvement in the quality of teaching of 11- to 14-year-olds in specialist schools. In language colleges, the standard had dropped as schools put more focus on older students.

David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, argued that specialist schools had to do more to raise standards. "Specialist schools must ensure that the drive for improvement is maintained. The variations in performance between specialist schools must be addressed to ensure that all types of specialist schools are consistently of the same high standard in all areas of teaching and learning."

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, defended specialist schools, saying technology and language colleges achieved much better results than non-specialists, accounting for nearly four-fifths of the 521 schools in the study.

"It is only in arts and sports colleges where specialist performance is either the same or only marginally better," he said.

He added that specialist schools usually entered a very high proportion of their pupils for their specialist subject, making it harder to achieve the highest pass rates compared with non-specialists who were ruthless about only entering their brightest students.

The specialist school programme is a key part of the Government's strategy for raising secondary school standards. There are now more than 2,000 schools with specialist status and ministers hope that all secondary schools will eventually become specialist.

Stephen Twigg, the schools minister, said: "This report underlines the fact that specialist status drives up standards. More than 57 per cent of pupils in specialist schools got five good GCSEs last year compared to 48 per cent of pupils in non-specialist schools.''

* The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, announced an outdoor learning manifesto, which promises every child a residential school trip and aims to tackle teachers' fears about being sued by parents if something goes wrong.