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Nothing special?

Does specialist status really drive up standards? A TES survey suggests many ordinary comprehensives do just as well - with less money.

Karen Gold reports

A new TES survey casts fresh doubts on the claim that specialist schools are better at improving academic performance than non-specialists.

The survey uncovers non-specialist schools doing just as well as their specialist counterparts without any of the financial benefits of specialist status.

Schools that become specialist receive a one-off pound;100,000 capital grant from the Government together with an annual top-up grant of pound;126 per pupil in return for raising pound;50,000 in private sponsorship.

The survey comes amid forecasts that the proportion of English secondaries that are specialist will top more than 90 per cent within three years, exceeding government targets.

But it raises fresh questions about how well England's 1,454 specialist schools are doing and whether they are worth the pound;400 million cost so far.

The TES study of 24 specialist schools found that 23 of them were doing no better than some non-specialists with the same kind of pupils. The specialist schools were chosen at random, across different specialisms and with above-average, average and below average GCSE results.

When their GCSE results and the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals were compared with those of non-specialist schools in the same or similar geographical areas, some non-specialists equalled or even surpassed specialist achievements at GCSE.

Only one specialist, Ninestiles technology college in Birmingham, appears to outclass everyone else. Some 72 per cent of its students get five Cs or better at GCSE despite 24.1 per cent being eligible for free school meals.

The Specialist School Trust's own "value-added" calculations published this year reveals that almost a third of specialist schools are failing to get the GCSE results that would be expected of their intakes.

Together with the TES survey, the figures suggest that specialist status, even with its extra funding and targets, is no guarantee of success.

Academics and MPs have for some time questioned whether the Government's policy of encouraging all secondary schools to become specialist is based on solid evidence. Earlier this year the House of Commons education committee lambasted ministers and the trust for claiming that specialists outperformed non-specialists in absolute and relative terms.

David Miliband, school standards minister, and Stephen Twigg, education junior minister, will be challenged on the policy when they are questioned by the committee before Christmas.

Barry Sheerman, committee chairman, said: "This is supposed to be a government committed to evidence-based policy. We have asked how good the evidence was, and we found it wasn't very good."

But the trust has stood by its reports - by Professor David Jesson of York university and Sir Cyril Taylor, its chairman - showing that specialists do better overall than non-specialists, and that the longer schools are specialist, the more successful they are.

Sir Cyril told The TES that "traditional, egalitarian, one-size-fits-all" academics were "completely wrong" in claiming that differing intakes accounted for the gap between specialist and non-specialist performance.

He said pupil intakes in specialist and non-specialist schools were almost identical. At the same time: "In 1994 the specialist schools averaged 40 per cent A*-Cs (in GCSE exams) and other schools averaged 36 per cent. In 2003 the original specialist schools averaged 69 per cent and the rest of the country 49 per cent. That is a rate of growth which is more than double. Many non-specialist schools use the same techniques as specialist schools, and that is why they are successful.

"Of course there are some schools which haven't done as well as others. But on an average basis, a large number of schools have performed dramatically better, and the difference is especially marked for the ones which have been in the programme longest."

analysis 19; leader 22

Goodbye bog-standard, hello specialist

* Specialist schools were launched in 1994 to raise standards.

* All secondaries in England can apply for specialist status and there are now 1,454. By 2006, more than 90 per cent of all secondary schools are expected to have applied.

* There are nine types of specialist schools. There are 500 technology, 188 language, 228 sport, 227 arts, 81 business and enterprise, 14 engineering, 75 mathematics and computing, and 121 science schools. There are 10 schools with more than one specialism.

* To qualify for specialist status, schools have to raise pound;50,000 from the private sector (less for schools with fewer than 500 pupils) and produce a four-year plan centred around teaching and learning developments and involvement with other schools and the community. They receive a one-off pound;100,000 grant plus pound;126 per pupil for four years. The schools teach the full curriculum but give particular attention to their specialist subjects.

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