Specialist schools face being overhauled if Labour loses power at the next general election, because both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats believe they are failing to raise standards in the subjects they specialise in.
Education spokesmen from both the main opposition parties have unearthed what they say is evidence that the scheme is failing to deliver "what it says on the tin".
The Schools minister Jim Knight has revealed that more than a quarter of the country's 310 specialist science schools failed to enter a single candidate for a physics, chemistry or biology GCSE last year.
Instead, they opted to put pupils in for what many academics have claimed is the less stretching "double science" exam. And only a handful of the 350 specialist language colleges (4.3 per cent) were putting every pupil in for a GCSE in the subject.
The Conservatives are demanding that league tables give more prominence to results in a wider range of academic subjects to give schools an incentive to do better. The Liberal Democrats want the programme – which includes around 2,600 of the 3,000 English state secondary schools – abolished.
David Laws, the Liberal Democrats' schools spokesman who obtained the science information in a parliamentary question, said: "The specialist schools programme is clearly not working well." He said the programme "has been about creating the illusion of diversity without making any difference".
"Ministers need to scrap this central programme, fund all schools at the specialist level and then focus on recruiting more excellent science teachers into all our schools," he added. Party sources said the programme was creating a two-tier system – with schools serving the most disadvantaged areas least likely to benefit from it.
On languages, figures obtained by Michael Gove, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, showed that only 15 had entered every pupil for a modern foreign languages GCSE.
"These figures suggest that in many cases the specialism isn't doing what it says on the tin," said Mr Gove. "There has been a terrible decline in the number of students studying foreign languages. We need to ensure that funding and the league tables are reformed so students are rewarded for pursuing rigorous subjects. That clearly isn't happening at the moment."
The two MPs' findings follow research from Professor Alan Smithers, of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, which casts doubt on the extent to which schools specialising in subjects raised standards in their chosen area. It revealed that a pupil attending a music specialist school was more likely to get an A grade in physics than one studying at a specialist science school. In fact, the specialist science schools only came fourth in a league table for A-level science results – behind modern languages and maths and computing specialist schools as well.
However, supporters of the specialist schools programme argue this could be because their schools encourage pupils of all abilities to study the specialism – whereas in others only high-fliers are allowed to take the subject.
Jenny Jupe, director of specialist and curriculum networks at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said: "Language college students are nearly twice as likely to take a GCSE in languages than in other schools and importantly every student has the chance to do so.
"Language colleges are also teaching strategically important world languages such as Mandarin and Arabic."Reuse content