Schools must join the crowd

Warwick Mansell and Roger Bushby report on the rise and rise of the specialist secondary at the movement's annual conference.

Is there any limit to the influence and expansion of the Specialist Schools Trust?

Every November, The TES writes up its annual conference as the biggest yet.

Then ministers do their best to ensure the movement is even stronger the following year.

As thousands of teachers, consultants and business people converged on Birmingham for the 12th national conference this week, Sir Cyril Taylor, the trust's chairman, was in triumphal mood. So no change there, then.

The past year, he told the conference, had seen the number of specialist schools swelling to 1,986, or nearly two-thirds of the total. Virtually all secondaries will have joined the throng within two years.

Sir Cyril told The TES that most who had no plans to do so were facing difficult situations. Rather than be left as "bog-standard" comprehensives, the Government should turn them into academies. Only around 250 of England's secondaries are not either already specialists or planning to apply for the status.

Sir Cyril said: "If you are going to abolish bog-standard comprehensives, you have to address the issue of these 200 remaining schools, often in very socially deprived areas, that are frankly not capable of putting in a specialist schools bid."

This year has been momentous for other reasons, too. The Government's decision to place specialists at the heart of its third-term education proposals has been crucial.

The section on secondary schools in its five-year plan is entitled "independent specialist schools". Not only will all secondaries be encouraged to be specialist, but they will be able to apply for new freedoms, giving them the right to own their land and buildings, to employ their staff and to set their own admissions policies.

There will be new powers to adopt a second specialism, for 11-16 schools to take on a sixth form and encouragement for leading secondaries to become training schools for teachers.

Sir Cyril, who received "a super-knighthood", or Knights Grand Cross, in the New Year's honours list, used his keynote speech to re-emphasise his schools' strong examination performance.

Specialist schools outperformed their non-specialist counterparts not only in GCSEs but also in the progress pupils make from age 11 to 16, he said, though the analysis is controversial.

Anyone arriving at the International Convention Centre unaware of the organisation's reach might get an inkling of its influence by glancing at the keynote speakers. These included Michael Barber, the Government's former education standards supremo, who is now head of Prime Minister Tony Blair's "delivery unit" which tries to ensure targets are met across the public sector; Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary; Mike Tomlinson, head of recent 14 to 19 inquirry; poet Roger McGough and professors David Hargreaves and Andy Hargreaves, while Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, set out how the corporation could support learning across society.

The crucial role of corporate sponsors was also in evidence, with 17 companies, from Microsoft and Oracle to the Education Publishers Council and also The TES listed as conference "partners".

Sir Cyril announced the results of a survey showing that 944 non-specialist secondaries have plans to become specialist. This leaves only around 260 of England's 3,150 mainstream secondary schools which are not planning to become specialist. For many of these planning to apply, the biggest barrier now will be securing pound;50,000 private funding.

Help, however, is available. One school, Beaumont Leys in Leicester, revealed how it raised only pound;1,000 on its own from the private sector. But it managed to achieve the pound;50,000 figure after the trust linked it to an anonymous donor who was willing to pay pound;49,000 to a school matching its characteristics.

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