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Prophet of the specialist schools

Is Sir Cyril Taylor the man really calling the shots in British education today? Hilary Wilce reports

The top man in British education is riding high. This week he publishes a book on making schools better; next he will greet thousands of followers at a convention which the organisers describe as a global event, now becoming "the major education conference in England". What? you cry. Since when did Charles Clarke get so charismatic? But the Education Secretary's influence on British education is arguably as nothing compared with the way Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, whose national conference opens in Birmingham next Wednesday, has wrested control of secondary education and set its agenda.

Consider the evidence. At the start of the 1990s this former businessman and toothpaste salesman was a relatively small-time educational player, running the handful of new, independent, state-funded city technology colleges for the Tories. Fast political footwork - he ditched his Conservative party membership in 1997 - and a persuasive manner enabled him to bend the ear of incoming Prime Minister Tony Blair on the subject of specialist schools, and the rest is history. Almost gone now are bog-standard comprehensives; sweeping in are Sir Cyril's specialist babies.

The Government expects about 3,000 secondaries to have specialist status by the year after next, leaving only a few hundred schools marooned by the tide, and even those are expected to be tugged along by successful specialist school partners. "We are actively planning for an entirely specialist system within three years," Sir Cyril wrote last December.

Note that governmental-style "we are actively planning". Over the years Sir Cyril has steadily consolidated his position and extended his influence.

Smooth and dapper, with finely-honed marketing skills, he was always going to stand out from the rumpled mass of educationists, and his ability to stay unwaveringly on message has served him well.

He repeats, indefatigably, statistics about specialist schools' success, while energetically rebuffing criticisms. He has always billed himself as "adviser to the Secretary of State" and has stayed close to every incomer to that position for the past 17 years. His Specialist Schools Trust operates increasingly like a kind of tiny education ministry, disseminating good practice, employing advisers and developing the curriculum. For the more than 2,000 schools in its network - the largest affiliated school network in the world, it says - it is a major port of call for training, advice and support, and its influence is international. Sir Cyril recently flew to Washington to advise the country which invented specialist (or magnet) schools how to develop them. Perhaps not surprisingly, his pronouncements lean increasingly towards the magisterial, not to say messianic. The headteachers of the specialist schools movement, he declaimed from one platform, "are the bows from which the living arrows are sent forth".

Does it matter that a non-elected individual should wield such influence? Not if you are convinced, like Sir Cyril, that specialist schools are the key to raising standards. As he himself continually points out, research commissioned by the trust shows that specialist schools roundly outperform other secondaries at GCSE. They are particularly good in English, maths and science, and add more value to pupils' attainments, especially to those at the bottom end of the spectrum.

And even critics will concede that the specialist programme has given many schools a kick up the backside, drawn in funding and injected teachers and heads with American-style vision and verve.

"The fact is the Specialist Schools Trust is one of the most interesting bodies around. It's developing personalised learning with the Secondary Heads Association, it's influencing how the curriculum develops, and it's revolutionising the ways schools use information technology," says Conor Ryan, former adviser to David Blunkett and co-author, with Sir Cyril, of Excellence in education: the making of great schools.

But Martin Rogers of the Education Network, an independent policy unit supporting local education authorities, says: "It seems to us there are questions you could ask about the potential influence of the trust, and about who actually wields what influence. It's not accountable to anyone."

For people like him, big questions still swirl around Sir Cyril's big idea.

For one thing there is, he says, no proven link between adopting a specialism and improving performance. Then there are the figures. Despite persuasive findings from Professor David Jesson, of York university, on specialist schools' achievements, a TES survey last year showed that many ordinary comprehensives do just as well, only with less money, raising questions about the pound;400 million-plus they have cost so far.

This troubles the House of Commons education committee, which this year criticised the Government for accelerating the specialist programme without proof that it gave value for money, saying it seemed to be based more on "wishful thinking" and Sir Cyril's lobbying skills than on hard evidence.

Others worry that business sponsors will have undue influence over the curriculum, or that the specialisms are so uneven that sports colleges are two-a-penny, while music colleges are almost non-existent. Still others fear that independently-operating schools will further polarise the haves and have-nots. "And the rhetoric from the Specialist Schools Trust is to encourage schools to go for that autonomy," points out David Hawker, Brighton and Hove's director of children, families and schools, and vice-chair of the Association of Directors of Education and Children's Services. "If you've got schools taking property and assets out of public ownership, if you've got them each becoming their own admissions authority, with no central planning, that's a recipe for chaos."

Then there is the question of whether the effect of setting up specialist schools can last. Much of their success is thought to be linked to the bidding process, which focuses energies and defines priorities. But in the end the prosaic old struggle of all schools - to sustain good teachers and lessons - will be central to their long-term performance.

Andy Hargreaves, the Thomas More Brennan professor of education at Boston college, in the United States, an expert on school change and one of the speakers at next week's conference, points out that specialist schools in themselves are neither good or bad. "What they are is a device that makes it possible to go beyond just the vacuous school mission statement. They were meant as a kind of third way, somewhere between neighbourhood comprehensives and the completely open choice model, and they could go any way. It's not a policy that will translate in a systematic way into practice in every area."

However, he says, his research in America shows clearly that successful schools are ones which benefit their neighbourhoods and communities, and sees a need for more thinking on this. "If these schools manage to offer opportunities for networked learning for other students outside the school, and for people in their communities, then that will be good, but if they become just another back door way of bringing in schools of choice then they are likely to regress to the kind of system that confuses and divides people."

The Government has said that specialist schools must work with others and serve their neighbourhoods. "There have been moves to flatten out the two-tier system," points out John Bangs, education secretary of the NUT. In addition, specialist schools are now allowed to have more than one specialism, and a tiny curb has been put on their ability to choose 10 per cent of their intakes. New design and technology colleges will no longer be allowed to do this. It is not enough to satisfy critics but it does mean that just as Sir Cyril's educational vision is to be rolled out nationally, that vision is busy morphing into something else. As one educational observer notes, Sir Cyril may well be reflecting that, as he comes up to 70, things are not going entirely his way. "His model of specialist schools was that they were exclusive, better than the others. But then Clarke came along and said, 'If these schools are so good, why shouldn't everyone have them?' Now it's going to be all schools, it's inclusive, and they are all going to have to sing from Charles Clarke's handbook."

So perhaps the top man in education is not Sir Cyril, but the Education Secretary, after all.

Platform 21; book of the week, friday magazine 18

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