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Specialists spark 'two-tier' fears

The Government's plans for reforming secondary schools have left some governors cold. Karen Thornton reports.

Governors have joined headteachers in criticising ministers' plans to increase the number of specialist secondary schools, saying it will lead to a two-tier education system.

There is a chasm between the rhetoric of the Government's Green Paper (Schools: Building on Success) and the reality of life in schools and LEAs, according to the National Association of Governors and Managers. And until ministers tackle that reality gap, many of their proposals - though generally welcomed - may be impossible to implement.

The Green Paper, published before the General Election was announced, effectively set out the next Labour government's education manifesto. It claims secure foundations have been laid in primary schools, and that transforming secondary education requires:

* More autonomy for successful schools.

* Extending diversity within the system, by having more specialist, faith-based, city academy and beacon schools, and allowing "external sponsors" to run underperforming schools.

* Improving pupil performance in the early years of secondary education by setting targets for 14-year-olds, introducing numeracy and literacy strategies, and investing in teachers' English and maths skills.

* More diversity in post-14 routes, including vocational, work-based and academic courses.

* More support - and additional targets - for lower-performing schools.

But, according to NAGM, the Green Paper presupposes two things: that there are sufficient school leaders and teachers to deliver the proposed reforms, and that there is such a thing as a "bog standard" comprehensive. The reality is different, it argues.

"Although recruitment and retention problems are acknowledged, their effect on the maintenance of present standards and improvement in standards is not," it says in its response.

In addition, many teachers are demoralised, cynical about further initiatives, and resistant to change. Workload issues have yet to be resolved, and the people delivering improvements in schools need to be given the credi for it, says NAGM.

But the 45,000-strong organisation is most irked by the proposed increase in specialist schools, which it sees as divisive, selective, and likely to increase the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged areas. It says it will oppose the expansion.

"(The Green Paper) appears to suggest that there is such a school as a 'standard' comprehensive, that other comprehensive schools are necessarily inferior to specialist schools, and that each comprehensive school does not already have a distinctive ethos. These misconceptions need to be negated," says the response.

"They show a lack of knowledge of those schools which cater for all abilities without any form of selective admission practice. Their denigration by those who have little knowledge of their value is to be condemned."

Suggestions that not all comprehensives have a distinctive ethos, and that this can be imposed from outside, are "patently nonsensical".

Elsewhere, NAGM also notes:

* The Green Paper will have "wide-ranging implications for both the work and workload of governors".

* Governors don't rate the Department for Education and Employment's support of their schools and LEAs, and that the department should be inspected by OFSTED.

* Private finance initiatives for improving buildings are not always of long-term benefit, and can disempower governors by removing some of their responsibilities for premises.

* Even the most successful schools need an external perspective and, without challenge, can become coasting schools.

"The Green Paper outlines an ambitious programme and shows a continued commitment to improving the educational provision for the young people in our schools. For this the Government should be commended," it concludes.

"Missing from this document is any solid understanding of the reality of the present experience for many working in schools. Also absent is any expression of equal partnership with LEAs and schools - which NAGM would support. Without this, further improvement is put in jeopardy."

See for copies of the green paper and for NAGM's response.

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