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More uses of English

Cyril Taylor says specialist schools could encourage students to study creative writing and read more widely

In March, Professor Lord Randolph Quirk, the distinguished founder of the Survey of English Usage, and Warwick Gould, professor of English literature at the University of London, convened a meeting of English scholars in London to review what sort of curriculum a school specialising in English might follow.

The discussion was long and fruitful. The meeting was one of a number of discussions by subject specialists that have been taking place to consider model curricula for the next wave of specialist schools. Until now, specialist schools have focused primarily on the teaching of maths, science, design technology, information and communications technology, languages and sport.

Now, thanks to guidelines announced by the Government last week, all aspects of the school curriculum, including English, history, geography and music studies are available for choice as a specialist focus. In all, 10 specialist subjects are available. This means that all schools, whatever their particular strength, are now eligible to bid for specialist status.

There is also the opportunity to add a rural dimension to one or more of the specialist subjects.

The changes offer a chance for schools to focus for the first time on English. Education Secretary Charles Clarke has already accepted some of the recommendations made by Lord Quirk and his fellow scholars and these are included in new guidelines for schools specialising in the subject.

Among the group's recommendations was that all such schools should set targets for achievement at GCSE and A-level in both English language and English literature. They were concerned that in 2002 there were 50,000 entries for A-level English literature but only 14,000 for English language and a similar number for joint language and literature. The total number of entries for both English language and literature at A-level has dropped significantly over the past six years, from 95,223 in 1997 to only 79,614 in 2002, while the total number of A-level entries has increased substantially.

Learning how to write and speak well, say the experts, is just as important as the study of set texts. They were also concerned at the modest number of set books (covering prose, poetry and drama) required for A-level English literature - only eight compared with 24 for the international baccalaureate requirements in English. They recommend that this number be increased in schools specialising in English. Concern was expressed at the meeting that the curriculum for English literature does not include creative writing. It was agreed that this is an important method for improving standards of literacy generally in schools. Creative writing improves both writing skills and attention to textual nuance. If introduced into the schools specialising in English, it would be a helpful carry-over to university work.

The group also believed that poetry should have a special place in the English specialist schools. It represents a challenge both intellectually and imaginatively. Poetry currently receives little emphasis in the English curriculum and greater emphasis would enable students to study prose, fiction and non-fiction to greater effect.

Finally, there was a consensus that history, drama and modern foreign languages are important complementary subjects to English literature. The Specialist Schools Trust is now seeking sponsors for these schools. We have already written to major contemporary literary figures asking for their support.

The Education Secretary has also agreed we can have schools specialising in history. Lord Briggs of Lewes, one of Britain's most distinguished historians, has offered help in drafting guidelines for schools specialising in the study of history. He has suggested that the study of history should be linked to the study of the classics.

Who would have thought when the first city technology college was founded in 1988 that, 15 years later, specialist schools would encompass the study of Latin and Greek? In the past, critics of the specialist schools movement have accused them of being too narrowly focused on vocational subjects.

Even before the advent of specialist English, history, geography and music schools, this criticism was mistaken because our schools perform well in all subjects in the national curriculum, not just their specialist subject.

For example: in 2002, nearly half of the 656 specialist schools in operation that summer were technology colleges. Yet, the specialist schools as a group achieved an impressive 60 per cent A*-C grades in English at GCSE, compared with only 54 per cent for other non-specialist schools.

This is just one example of how good performance in a particular subject can lead to better performance in other subjects. We call this the locomotive effort.

Nevertheless, the Specialist Schools Trust accepts that we are entering new ground in supporting schools specialising in the humanities. That is one of the reasons we changed our name from the Technology Colleges Trust. We would welcome suggestions (email on how the new specialist schools in English, history, geography and music can become centres of excellence serving as resources of best practice for all schools.

Sir Cyril Taylor is chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust Teacher, 8

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