Superschools are elitist and divisive, warn teachers

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HEADS and teachers yesterday attacked a new government scheme for beacon schools as divisive, elitist and unnecessary.

Some heads questioned whether schools not named as beacons would be keen to take up the offer of help from their high-flying neighbours.

Stephen Byers, the schools standards minister, announced pounds 1.8m for 100 beacon schools which will spread good practice by training teachers and helping nearby schools improve their performance. They will be chosen from schools which have received exceptional praise from Ofsted inspectors.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said there was a danger that they would produce more social selection because most parents would want to send their children there and heads would resort to selecting pupils by parental interview. "There is a danger that beacon schools will become the new social grammar schools, and the rest the new social secondary moderns."

Mr Byers said the aim was not to create an elite but to spread excellence. "These schools have already been identified as performing very well. Parents know that. What we want to do is to help all schools perform at this high level."

He explained the plans at a conference in London for 176 schools named for their outstanding performance in the annual report by Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools. All will be asked to volunteer to become beacon schools.

They will be given up to pounds 50,000 to release good teachers to help visiting or new teachers on issues such as literacy, truancy and improving GCSE results.

But some heads questioned whether there would be much enthusiasm for beacon schools' services.

Martin Roberts, head of the Cherwell School, one of Oxfordshire's most successful comprehensives, which is to be inspected next spring and which is not among the 176, argued that the judgement of Ofsted and Chris Woodhead should not be taken too seriously.

"A beacon school is going to be only marginally better than other schools. I would be very surprised if most schools and governors felt that anything very significant could be learned by whizzing off to see what they are doing in another school. For most schools I doubt whether a beacon school is going to amount to more than a few jokes in the pub."

Alan Symmonds, head of Newbiggin Middle School in Newbiggin, Northumberland, an area with high unemployment in a county with many small country schools, said he was always willing to learn from good practice but questioned whether it would translate from one area to another. "Would I say to my teachers in a difficult area that they might learn something if they go to a school where the children all arrive in Rolls- Royces? There is a credibility problem."

The first beacon schools will start hits autumn and their status will last for three years. They will agree contracts with the Government which will specify their particular strengths.

Mr Byers said:"We believe that a network of beacon schools shining forth across the country will show the way forward and raise standards for everyone."