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Specialist schools to live on despite losing #163;450m fund

The specialist school system as we know it is over, but many headteachers are keen to keep the movement going.

Education Secretary Michael Gove announced last week that he was ending the separate extra funding for specialist schools. This money - #163;450 million for the next academic year - will now go directly to all secondaries.

The vast majority of secondary schools, around 3,000, have specialist status, and they will all be able to keep it in their titles if they wish. However, the announcement ends the central premise of the programme, started in 1994, which was that schools had to demonstrate they deserved the status and money by meeting targets, including for results, and sharing their expertise in their chosen subject with other schools and their communities.

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) will no longer be funded by the Government to designate the schools and oversee networks of them, for which it received #163;13 million this year. But the trust will continue to act as an organisation for leaders of specialist schools, nearly all of which pay around #163;1,000 for membership.

Explaining the decision, Mr Gove said it was because "specialism is so firmly established" that it was time to "give school leaders greater freedom to make use of the opportunities offered by specialism and the associated funding".

Some heads have admitted they only opted for specialist status for the money, suggesting they are unlikely to give their schools' specialisms the same attention in the future. But many heads told The TES that they were keen to continue the work and remain members of the SSAT.

Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, said his school's sports college status had been the "number one in ingredient" in raising standards.

"Jumping through occasional hoops has forced us to do things we might otherwise have ignored," he said. "I think the apparent loss of the specialist system shifts the ground for schools very significantly.

"But other schools may feel less strongly than we do. Therefore, whether they pay the membership fee to the SSAT is likely to become much more dependent on the whim of the headteacher."

John Townsley, chairman of the SSAT's national headteacher steering group and head of Morley High School in Leeds, said he was optimistic for the future of the SSAT, as local authority cutbacks would make the support it provided even more appreciated by headteachers.

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