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A policy that has failed the poorest

The specialist schools programme is so far a lost opportunity to foster social justice in education. Worse, it is exacerbating the pecking order of schools and undermining the Government's own objectives.

It is often nowadays described as a school improvement programme, but it could have been - though sadly isn't - a way of improving the system as a whole.

No attempt has been made to use the roll-out of the programme to enable those schools serving the most disadvantaged communities to achieve the much-publicised benefits claimed for specialist status ahead of their neighbours. This would have helped to counter the polarisation to which schools are increasingly subject.

Instead, self-selecting candidates for extra cash and kudos have often made the plight of their weaker neighbours worse. Only at the extreme end of the spectrum of need have dramatic additional resources been given to a small number of academies.

The lack of any broader strategy is glaring, and indeed school funding plans for the next two years bring stability at the expense of greater fairness.

The failure to insist that specialists help to lift standards in neighbouring secondaries, rather than self-interestedly improve links with their feeder primaries, has compounded the problem.

Admirably, some authorities have managed to negotiate with their schools a sensible spread of specialisms, and even collaboratiion to achieve a coherent local system. But this was despite, not because of, the way the policy has been implemented.

The political cliche of "diversity and choice" raises the wrong expectation when what is obviously needed is to break any link between specialism and admissions - especially through selection by aptitude.

Rather than encouraging the competitive tendency which is still such a powerful feature of our system, the Government should be boldly promoting not only a collaborative alternative, but one in which responsibility for all pupils in an area is genuinely shared by all local schools. That is necessary if individuals - including the most disadvantaged - are to get the personalised learning that truly meet their needs; everyone will need equal access to the full range of local facilities.

If we are to address our class-linked "long tail of underachievement" extra money and facilities must be focused on, not away from the disadvantaged.

Schools must be encouraged to address the biggest challenge we face together rather than concentrating on their own place in the market. They should stop trying to improve their own intake and focus on improving the outcomes for all pupils.

The nightmare suggested by Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, must be avoided. He wants 2,963 schools to be specialist by 2006. This would leave what would effectively be 200 to 300 "sink" schools Ministers had better urgently secure some strategic direction over the second half of the specialist roll-out. Otherwise they face the prospect of creating some pretty specialist centres of disaffection.

Martin Rogers is co-ordinator The Education Network (TEN), an independent information and policy unit supporting councils

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