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Sheffield pledges specialisms for all

Sheffield, whose socialist credentials once made it the capital of the so-called People's Republic of South Yorkshire, is to become the ultimate New Labour education authority.

Yesterday, the city fathers announced they wanted all 27 of their secondaries to have specialist status by 2006. One of the new schools may even be a city academy, a type devised and vigorously promoted by the Downing Street policy unit.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, praised Sheffield for its bold and visionary plan when he spoke at the annual lecture of the Specialist Schools Trust.

Specialist schools and city academies have been given a central place in government education thinking, seen as alternatives to a uniform system of local comprehensives, particularly in urban areas. Mr Clarke hit back at critics of specialist schools, insisting that they remained at the heart of secondary reform.

His comments came after a report from the House of Commons education committee last month criticised the Government for expanding the scheme without proper evidence that it gave tax-payers value for money.

Mr Clarke pointed to test results from 2002 showing that specialist schools outperformed non-specialists for both the proportion of pupils who gained five A*-C passes at GCSE and for value-added results.

Both specialist schools and city academies depend on the involvement of local business, and receive preferential funding in return for concentrating on particular curriculum areas, for example languages, sport or engineering.

In addition, city academies are independent of local authority control and have flexibility on the recruitment of staff and pupils.

Sheffield has come a long way since the mid-1980s, when council leader David Blunkett, now the Home Secretary, was known as a left-wing firebrand.

Its bid to be the first completely specialist authority pits it against Newcastle and Birmingham which, according to the Specialist Schools Trust, are already embarked on a similar course.

Achieving specialist status for all 27 Sheffield schools will not be easy.

According to Sir Cyril Taylor, the trust's chairman, around half of all applicants fail the first time round. Sheffield's schools will also have to raise pound;50,000 each in sponsorship.

John Leam, head of Parkwood high school in the deprived Shirecliffe area of the city, is aiming for specialist status in maths and computing. He said the Sheffield plan was drawn up to prevent a two-tier system.

Steve Farnsworth, the city's deputy director of education, said that the scheme was aimed at helping Sheffield improve both its educational attainment and the local economy.

Mr Clarke said: "The specialist schools programme has evolved from a narrow project limited to a few schools to an inclusive, all-embracing one. I believe specialist status is a real driver for improving standards and raising expectations."

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