SPECIALIST schools once again lead the field in GCSE success in the state sector.
The results just published seem to give credibility to the Government's enthusiasm for the policy, although criticism of unfair funding and "creeping selection" are still levelled by the teachers' unions.
Numbers have grown from 330 specialist schools in 1998 to 534 by June this year - the 2002 target was 500. At least 1,000 are now planned by September 2004.
The 450 secondary schools in the first Excellence in Cities areas have also shown higher-than-average improvements. The proportion of pupils gaining five or more A to C grade GCSEs jumped from 2.3 per cent age points to 37.1 per cent.
Secretary of State David Blunkett said: "It is particularly good news that young people in specialist schools and EiC areas have seen such improvements.
"These results show how our policies, particularly those targeted at young people from more deprived areas, are working. I am very grateful for all the hard work by teachers and pupils to achieve these outcomes."
Results published by the Technology Colleges Trust show that in the 393 specialist schools established in September 1999 or before, 53 per cent of pupils gained at least five A to C grades - compared with an estimated 42 per cent at other comprehensives.
Nearly two-thirds of the 393 schools saw at least 70 per cent of pupils achieve the top grades And more than a quarter of schools in the Government's most-improved list were specialist.
Specialist schools range from city technology colleges, set up in the late 1980s and 1990s in an attempt to attract money from business, to schools specialising in technology, sport, languages and the arts.
Their status attracts a pound;100,000 Government grant and a promise of pound;100 per pupil per year, for three years, if schools raise pound;100,000 in private sponsorship.
Leading the way is Thomas Telford city technology college, in Telford, Shropshire, which made history when its 171-pupil GCSE cohort this year all gained five or more A to C grades.
Initially the school thought it had missed out on a clean sweep because one pupil failed to get a fifth grade C pass by one mark. The pupil appealed to the exam board and the paper was regraded. Headteacher Kevin Satchwell described himself as the luckiest head in the country.
Despite the Technology Colleges Trust's insistence that specialist schools' are truly comprehensive - only one in 14 specialist schools makes use of its right to select up to 10 per cent of pupils - they are accused of creaming off the most motivated, best-supported pupils.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Congratulations to Thomas Telford but let's not pretend that city technology colleges are genuine comprehensives. They have more funding and do not take their fair share of the disaffected pupils."