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Many specialist schools have proved to be high achievers, but precisely why is less than clear. Phil Revell reports

What's so special about specialist schools? Four years ago, Richard Arrowsmith was asking himself that question as he and his governors considered whether to apply for specialist status.

"I was opposed to the whole concept, " he said.

Mr Arrowsmith is head of the Grove school, a rural comprehensive in the Shropshire town of Market Drayton. Like many other heads, he saw the initiative largely in terms of the financial benefits it would bring to his school - more than half a million pounds over the past four years.

"I've always said that if you want schools to improve, then give them the money to do the job," he said.

The Grove applied successfully for language-college status, but the application process did not reassure Mr Arrowsmith.

"There was a clear pressure to set high targets, and some of the targets I was asked to create were just silly - things I couldn't possibly predict or have any control over," he said.

Specialism is the bedrock of the Government's education reforms. The new academies are all specialist schools, and ministers have repeatedly said they want all secondary schools in England to develop a specialism.

At the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), David Crossley, director of achievement networks, points to the examination success of many specialist schools.

"Specialist schools significantly outperform non-specialists in terms of raw results, value-added and contextual value-added measures," he said.

"In 2005, 59.4 per cent of pupils in specialist schools achieved five or more A*-C grades at GCSE, compared with 48 per cent of pupils in non-specialists."

Ministers attribute this exam success to the specialism itself. Earlier this year, Tony Blair said: "The whole point is, you choose a specialism."

But independent observers are not convinced. Mark Hewlett, director of the Centre for the Study of Comprehensive Schools (CSCS) and a former specialist-school head, said."Their success is down to the extra funding - allied to the fact that if you don't meet the aims and targets, then penalties will accrue. That gives a headteacher huge power over the staff.

There's a lot of pressure in the system."

In February this year, The TES reported how academics Frances Castle and Jennifer Evans had tried to identify the critical factors that explain specialist schools' success. Their study cited high-quality teaching, leadership and resources. But they were sceptical about the influence of a subject specialism.

"The debate on the efficacyof specialist status as a method for improving standards of teaching and learning has been hampered by lack of robust research," they said.

"Much of the evidence provided by government has been inconclusive or methodologically suspect."

In 2003, Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the SSAT, was questioned by MPs about whether the trust had evidence to show that it was the specialist subject, and not other factors, that led to specialist schools' success.

"We ought to do more research on the importance of the specialist subject," Sir Cyril told the parliamentary select committee.

"There has been no systematic evaluation. of the whole process?" asked Labour MP David Chaytor.

"No," replied Sir Cyril.

Three years later, the answer is the same. The trust admitted that it had no evidence to link the success of the programme with any particular specialism.

"We do not have specific quantitative evidence to show that a school's subject specialism is in fact a school's strongest subject before it takes up the specialism," said Mr Crossley.

There is no clear evidence either to show that specialist schools outperform non-specialists in their chosen subject. Neither does the trust have any evidence to indicate that parents look for the subject specialism when they choose a school for their child. Nor is there evidence to suggest that specialist status of any kind is actively sought by parents.

Mr Crossley cites the work of David Jesson in support of the real gains made by specialist schools. He is a visiting professor of economics at York university and has written a number of papers detailing the value-added performance of the schools. Ministers have turned to his work for evidence of the programme's success.

But Professor Jesson told The TES that an observer would have to be "very careful" before assuming that the success of specialist schools was due to their focus on a particular subject.

"The single idea that it must be down to the specialist subject - that in itself isn't valid," he said.

Mr Crossley denied that the actual specialism is therefore irrelevant. "In many (of the schools) the specialism is the key," he said. "We have evidence to show that there is a higher take-up of the specialist subject.

Language colleges have been a real catalyst for an increasingtake-up of foreign languages."

Earlier this year, Sir Cyril announced that specialist schools risked losing their funding if they failed to hit new, "tougher" targets. He said these were designed to stop specialist secondaries from "coasting", and added: "Why should schools get extra funding if they are not meeting minimum requirements?"

But specialists schools do fail, and appear to receive their additional funding after missing the most basic target of all: Ofsted inspection.

Figures obtained by The TES show that 72 specialist schools are now "causing concern", with 31 specialist schools in Ofsted's more serious "special measures" category.

But failure does not result in automatic loss of specialist status. In fact, the Department for Education and Skills reports that during the 10 years of the specialist schools programme, just 49 schools have lost the status, and the extra funding that goes with it.

At the Oxted school, in Surrey, headteacher Margaret Hawley has resisted the temptation to jump through specialist hoops.

"It's been said to me that streams of government funding will not be open to the school unless it goes specialist," she said. "But we have asked the staff, the parents, the governors. If I felt that it was to our benefit, I would consider it. But I think it would be a distraction."

Oxted has been described by Ofsted as a high-performing school and last year achieved GCSE A*-C pass rates of 72 per cent last year. It is one of the biggest schools in the country with more than 2,100 students.

Ms Hawley said: "We are already a strong school. We offer a good education across the board. How would a focus on one subject area help us?"

Back in Shropshire, has four years of specialism changed Richard Arrowsmith's opinion?

"There's no question that it galvanised our language department," he said.

"Specialism changed its whole vision of what teaching is - and can become - and I have been very happy with the support from the specialist schools trust."

It is an endorsement that echoes the views of many heads, but the fact remains that the specialism does not insulate a school from failure. And no one appears to have a good explanation about why it should.

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