The Big Question: Is the success of specialist schools an illusion resulting from extra funding?

Why are we asking this now?

Because new research published yesterday by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson, from the Centre for Education and Employment at the University of Buckingham, cast doubts on claims that the Government's specialist schools programme has been responsible for driving up standards in state schools.

What were their findings?

In their findings, published by the Gatsby Foundation, they reveal that a pupil attending a music specialist school was more likely to get an A grade in physics at A-level than a pupil attending a specialist science school. In fact, the specialist science school only came fourth in the league table for science A-level results - behind modern foreign languages and maths and computing specialist schools as well. The figures were 36 per cent attaining A grades in music schools, 26.5 per cent in language schools, 24.4 per cent in maths and computing and 23.7 per cent in science.

Why was this so?

The reasons are complex. Firstly, while the most popular reason for a school to choose a specialism is because traditionally the subject has been one of the school's strengths, nearly one in five of the specialist science schools (18.7 per cent) chose the subject because they were traditionally weak in the subject and thought that by opting for it they would find it easier to attract good science teachers and improve their performance.

The other two main reasons were that schools were mainly using the programme to get hold of extra money and that, in general, music and modern foreign language schools in particular have tended to attract more middle-class students with a higher general level of attainment when they arrive at the school at the age of 11.

So what is the specialist schools programme?

It follows on from a scheme launched by the Conservatives in the early 1990s when schools were allowed to apply for specialist technology status. It was part of former Education Secretary Kenneth Baker's dream to bring the white heat of technology into the education system and to shore up his flagging City Technology Colleges programme – which was floundering as a result of difficulties in attracting enough sponsors for the CTCs. The Conservatives' scheme was considered divisive by the education world, though, because only those schools that opted for grant maintained status (opting out of local authority control) were eligible to apply for it.

What happened when Labour came in in 1997?

The scheme was broadened to allow all schools to participate (except those that had failed their inspections by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, or had shown serious weaknesses – thus needing overall improvement before they could concentrate on a specialism). In addition, the nature of the specialisms was widened to cover all the key subjects in the national curriculum.

To qualify for specialist status, schools had to show they could raise matched funding in order to qualify for a capital grant of £100,000 to improve their facilities. Specialist schools in areas of the curriculum which require aptitude (such as music and sport) rather than academic attainment can select up to 10 per cent of their pupils as a result of their talent for the subject they specialise in.

The sponsorship cash was later reduced to just £50,000 and a central pool set up by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust to help schools in disadvantaged areas with less chance of raising private cash. As from January 2008, 2, 688 (87.5 per cent) of the 3,073 (excluding CTCs and academies) had specialist status.

What are Smithers' and Robinson's conclusions?

Smithers and Robinson conclude: "Our interpretation is that the specialist schools policy has proved useful as a general programme for freshening up a tired comprehensive system – but it has created a mix of schools with names which do not seem to mean very much."

They add: "It may not be too much of an over-simplification to say that the sum total of research on specialist schools shows that good schools plus extra funding do better."

One of the more telling arguments they make in answer to the SSAT's claims that the programme has driven up standards is that there are so few schools left outside of the programme (and many of them have either failed their Ofsted inspection or been warned of serious short-comings) that it not very meaningful to make comparisons between those inside and outside the programme.

What do the defenders of specialist schools make of the report's assertions?

Elizabeth Reid, chief executive of the SSAT, makes the point that – in specialist science schools – the numbers of pupils opting for science subjects has grown and standards have improved. She accepts that schools have used their specialist status to improve their overall performance, but believes that this is no bad thing. New Labour would claim that the broadening of the programme was instrumental in seeing the death of the "bog-standard" comprehensive.

So – if both sides agree that standards have risen – what is the point in worrying about it?

Smithers and Robinson would argue that it has presented parents with a nightmare when it comes to making a choice of secondary schooling for their children. "If the labels don't really mean anything, then they are a trap for unwary parents," they argue. "Should they send their children to what they instinctively feel is a good school or do they make every effort to find one with an appropriate title?" They add: "What is a science or a sports school supposed to do? Is a sports school expected to help us field a team for the 2012 Olympics? Are science schools educating our future research scientists?"

So what advice should be given to parents seeking a secondary school for their sons or daughters?

The answer has to be scour the performance tables or a school's prospectus for evidence of a good school – based on exam results or "value added" performance, which shows how much its pupils have improved or otherwise in GCSEs compared with what was expected of them when they arrived at age 11. In terms of the questions posed by Smithers and Robinson, the answer is probably "yes" to the question of whether sports schools should be training our Olympic athletes of the future on the grounds they do select some pupils on grounds of sporting excellence, but "no" to the question as to whether science schools are educating our future research scientists on the grounds that some of them have only opted for the specialism because they felt they were previously weak in the subject rather than excellent.

Should the Government's specialist schools programme be reviewed?

Yes...

* In some cases, the specialisms chosen bear little relation to the strengths of a particular school.

* Labelling a school as specialist complicates parental choice if it is not a centre of excellence.

* Claims that the scheme has driven up standards cannot be justified. Many weak or failing schools are ot part of the programme.

No...

* They have increased exams take-up and results in their chosen areas.

* Specialist status lifts the whole school and provides it with extra funding to improve facilities.

* Some specialist schools – notably those which concentrate of sport and music – can select up to 10 per cent of their pupils and become centres of excellence.

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