Specialist schools accused of hoarding expertise

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The Independent Online

The Government's flagship specialist schools were accused by inspectors on Tuesday of failing in a key objective – sharing their expertise with neighbouring comprehensives.

The Government's flagship specialist schools were accused by inspectors on Tuesday of failing in a key objective – sharing their expertise with neighbouring comprehensives.

The accusation immediately led to a warning from ministers that they could be stripped of their specialist status.

"Specialist schools know that when they seek renewal of their status every four years, they must prove they are sharing their expertise more widely," said a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills. "Those that fail to do so could lose their status."

The first independent study of how the scheme was working, carried out by Ofsted, the education watchdog, found that sharing good practice was "the weakest element of specialist schools' work". Mike Tomlinson, the chief schools inspector, urged the Technology Colleges Trust, which oversees the specialist schools network, to monitor schools to make sure they carry out this commitment.

Ministers have said a third of the extra cash received by specialist schools must be spent on improving community links, and have repeatedly used this to counter claims that the programme is creating a "two-tier" education system.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "It must be a matter of grave concern that one of the key criteria for a specialist school – namely sharing resources with other schools and the wider community – is simply not being met in the majority of cases."

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "Ofsted's report confirms fears that specialist schools are creating a two-tier, two-speed school system. By 2005 Labour will have created a new class of bog standard secondary modern schools."

The Ofsted study, involving detailed research into the performance of more than 300 of the 700 specialist schools, praised their work in raising their own standards. Four out of five schools were "in large measure achieving the aims of the specialist schools programme and making good use of the advantages it brings", it concluded.

More pupils in technology, arts and languages colleges were achieving at least five top-grade GCSE passes than in state schools nationally.

The schools were best at their own specialist subjects, getting good grades passes even for weaker pupils. However, Mr Tomlinson added: "Success in specialist subjects is not yet having the expected impact on remaining subjects in the curriculum."

The only specialist schools performing below the national average were sports colleges, but they were the best when it came to fulfilling commitments to sharing their facilities.

The Government reacted to yesterday's report by spelling out its vision for a future specialist programme with greater collaboration between schools. In future, there would be local education authorities where every secondary school would take on a different specialism and share their differing expertise.

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, announced five new projects in Birmingham, Cornwall, Hertfordshire, Newham and Portsmouth that would pioneer the expansion.

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