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Sceptical about the specialists

I READ with interest your report on the research commissioned by the Technology Colleges Trust which purported to show that there was a statistically significant effect of specialist schools on children's performance (TES, June 7).

I have a healthy scepticism about research commissioned by any interest group that comes up with conclusions which unequivocally promote the cause of that group. For example, the Meat Traders Association's use of research to show that eating beef was safe.

I am not a researcher, neither am I a statistician, but I do know that statistics can be used to suit particular purposes and that researchers and statisticians themselves do not always come to the same conclusions even from the same core evidence.

This week, in the National Foundation for Educational Research's publication, News, I noticed that Sandie and Ian Schagen's research came to rather different conclusions about the subject.

These were: performance was only very slightly above the norm in technology and language colleges and not at all in other types of specialist school or college; positive associations are not necessarily causal; relevant factors concerning intake such as ethnicity, English as an additional language and parental support have not been included in any research because data was not available; questions remain about whether such enhanced performance of specialist schools as was found is due at least in part to the additional funding which they receive.

As far as I know, all of those caveats apply equally to the trust-commissioned research, with an additional question mark that it uses five or more A* to Cs rather than average GCSE point scores to measure performance.

Debate between researchers will no doubt continue and most of us have neither the expertise nor the time to go back to their core data and develop a view for ourselves. What I do think important, however, is that neither we nor central government come to simplistic conclusions about specialist schools getting better results. What we need is all our secondary schools getting good results.

I, therefore, sign up to the Prime Minister's statements on specialist schools made immediately after Alastair Campbell's "bog standard" remark. Tony Blair said that the Government's aim was for all schools who met the criteria to achieve specialist status and for others to be working towards it.

Let's hope that sufficient resources will be made available to make that a reality because, until it is, whatever the intention in terms of specialist schools being based on the principles of sharing and co-operation, the competition and status elements will remain and will be fuelled by the kind of headlines which the TCT research produced.

Christine Whatford Director of education London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, London W6

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