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Stop slating specialist schools and learn from their success

The review of the examination performance of English schools by Jean Mangan, Geoff Pugh and John Gray in last week's TES agrees that specialist schools have improved their standards but denigrates them by claiming that the improvement is due to increased funding. It makes this claim even though the Pounds 129,000, which is the typical annual grant a specialist school receives, is only an increase of 3 per cent on their regular funding.

Professor David Jesson of York University, in his review of the performance of non-selective specialist schools in 2006, found that the 2,209 such schools in operation for at least a year averaged 60 per cent five or more A*-C grades at GCSE. This compares with 48 per cent for the 695 non-specialist schools a quarter better. Provisional results for 2007 show specialist schools continue to perform well.

The intake of these 2,209 specialist schools in 2001, when the 2006 GCSE pupil cohort started secondary school, was broadly similar to that of non-specialist comprehensives. The better performance at GCSE by specialist schools is not therefore dependent on them selecting more able pupils. Indeed, the eligibility for free school meals in specialist schools is slightly higher than the national average of 13 per cent.

Performance by specialist schools in their chosen subjects is considerably higher than for other comprehensives as well as in the key subjects of mathematics, science and English. In 2006, pupils in non-selective specialist schools achieved 45 per cent five or more A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and maths, compared with 34 per cent of pupils in the non-specialist schools almost a third better.

If the 262,000 16-year-olds in the summer of 2006 in non-selective specialist schools who achieved five good grades at GCSE had performed to the same level as pupils in non-specialist schools, there would have been 52,000 fewer of them studying for A-levels with the prospect of a good university place next summer.

The study by Staffordshire and Cambridge universities misses the key reasons for the success of specialist schools, including the support of sponsors; the submitting of plans to raise performance to gain designation; the accountability to deliver, as well as the need to apply for redesignation every three years, with this dependent on a favourable Ofsted inspection.

The extra funding is important, but modest, and is not the principal reason for the success of specialist schools.

Instead of questioning the success of schools, academics such as Professors Pugh, Mangan and Gray should be researching the techniques that good schools use to raise their performance so others could benefit. Soon all schools will be specialist, and comparisons between specialist and non-specialist rendered irrelevant. More important will be the sharing of best practice by encouraging collaboration and co-operation on both a local and national basis.

Crucially, the study also fails to mention that schools need time to achieve progress. The original 45 specialist schools designated in 1994 have improved the proportion of pupils achieving five or more A*-C GCSE grades from 40 per cent to 74 per cent in 2006 a massive rise. The 390 schools designated in 2005 have so far only improved their results from 53 to 54 per cent on average. The reasons are obvious enough: the longer a school has been specialist, the greater its improvement.

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust believes that every child should be able to go to a good local secondary school. While real progress has been made over the past 10 years, there are still too many low-attaining schools. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust is working hard to partner these with high-performing schools, either by using the new trust status or by helping to convert schools to academies.

Cyril Taylor

is chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust

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