Specialist schools at risk of losing status

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The Independent Online

Specialist secondary schools will be stripped of their status if they fail tough new inspections as part of a dramatic new drive to raise standards.

Under a shake-up introduced by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, all schools are to be ranked on a scale of one to four, with the lowest ranking of four signalling the school has weaknesses or is failing. A score of four for a specialist school will also lead to loss of status - dealing a financial blow to the school.

Many heads say sponsors will withdraw, because they are unlikely to want to be associated with a failing school. As a result, the school may be forced to close, or become one of the Government's new privately sponsored academies - 200 of which are to be set up by 2010.

The new system for specialist schools will begin next September and is part of a government drive to improve standards - which will be spelt out in a White Paper on education next week.

Sir Cyril Taylor, the Government's chief adviser on specialist schools and academies, believes the regime is necessary to keep the focus on improving standards and exam results in secondary schools. He said inspections would be linked to the schools seeking redesignation of their specialist status - as happens every four years.

"If they score one or two [outstanding or excellent], they will automatically be redesignated," he said.

They will be allowed to add a second specialism and will be designated high-performing schools - with the task of helping struggling schools improve.

Specialist schools that score a ranking of threewill be monitored to see where improvements can be made.

Schools that score four will be de-designated - and given a year to return to the fold. Otherwise, they could close and become an academy.

The creation of specialist schools has been one of the main levers for driving up standards. Figures show that more than 55 per cent of pupils in specialist schools get at least five A* to C-grade passes at GCSE - compared with just 46 per cent in the rest of the non-selective state sector. There are now 2,400 specialist secondary schools in the country - with the figure expected to rise to 2,700 out of 3,100 next September.

When the Government's academies programme is taken into account, only 200 schools - which are failing, or grammar schools which have refused to enter it through elitism - will be outside the programme.

As a result, the Government will no longer be able to use the gift of specialist status to schools as a lever to raise standards - although those that are successful can take on a second specialism.

Government advisers believe the new regime is the best way of guaranteeing the drive to raise standards.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, also wants to see more setting - grouping pupils according to their abilities in different subjects - in secondary schools.

At present, this happens in one in three lessons.

Popular specialist schools and academies will be encouraged to adopt "banding" arrangements for admission - whereby they select an equal number of pupils from each of nine different ability groups.

That move has been criticised by parents' leaders and David Cameron, the Conservatives' education spokesman, who described it as "a 1960s solution to a 1960s problem". Both say the Government should be trying to ensure parents have a good secondary school nearby.