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All secondaries can be special

I must challenge Nic Barnard's assumption that Professor Gorard's draft research paper confirms that specialist schools are about a two-tier education system ("Specialists recruit privileged pupils", TES, June 15).

The whole emphasis of the Specialist Schools Programme since 1997 has been about increasing the opportunities for all pupils within the comprehensive system. That is why we have already tripled the number of specialist schools from 181 in May 1997 and plan to expand the programme to 1,500 by 2006. And 1,500 is not a ceiling. Over time, all schools that are willing and ready will be able to become specialist schools.

Stephen Gorard's analysis uses free school meal (FSM) percentage comparisons. We were well aware that the average FSM percentage that we inherited in 1997 was low (13.85 per cent) and we have steadily improved the position. By September 2000 the overall percentage proportion had risen to 16 per cent. We will certainly not be satisfied until this figure matches the national average.

Being part of the specialist schools programme is about raising expectations of what pupils can achieve, even in challenging circumstances.

We want more specialist schools to have an impact in areas of high social deprivation and, through the Excellence in Cities (EiC) programme, we are helping more schools in these areas to achieve specialist school designation. Thirty-eight per cent of schools in EiC areas will have specialist status from September.

Specialist schools are about broadening opportunities and raising standards in all types of secondaries in all areas right across the ability range. Contrary to Stephen Gorard's findings, which suggest that there are no secondary modern schools in the programme, 13 per cent of secondary moderns are specialist schools.

Our commitment to ensure that all secondary schools establish their own distinctive character and ethos - whether or not that involves being a specialist school - far from creating a two-tier system, will help to ensure that we create a system which is able to meet the needs and aspirations of all our young people.

Stephen Timms Minister of State for Schools Department for Education and Skills Sanctuary Buildings Great Smith Street London

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