A new way to be diverse?;Christmas dabate;Specialist schools

1st January 1999 at 00:00

Are specialist schools a potentially new form of social engineering or an intelligent way of focusing resources and encouraging ability? Tamsyn Imison and Tony Edwards disagree

It is perfectly obvious to anyone visiting a number of schools that each one is unique. The school is determined by its particular context and ethos. The ethos comes from the vision, leadership and skills within each school.

Schools in the UK retain significant flexibility - despite a national curriculum - to organise the day structure, the groupings, the curriculum opportunities, the pedagogy and the input from parents, the communities, business and industry as well as from further and higher education.

Schools take young people at different ages and send them on to the next stage at different times. Most importantly, schools select their own staff and have responsibility for staff development and their opportunities to contribute.

Specialist schools began as technology colleges but now have many forms - language colleges, performing arts and sports colleges. The magnet schools in the USA have not been a total success, particularly when they have over-specialised and distorted the curriculum or when they have become selective and deprived other schools of talented young people - the worst form of social engineering.

My school applied to be a technology college - wanting neither to have a distorted curriculum depriving young people of career choices nor to be selective, leaching talent from other local schools. There were three reasons why we applied.

First, we have, as a school community, thought a lot about the future, about the impact of huge changes to the world of work and the need for dramatic changes to schools. We want to change the nature of our school now, not wait until change is imposed upon us.

We believe that all schools will become community learning centres where adults will also need access. More than 50 per cent of adults are not currently in a full-time job. Very few jobs last more than six years. Most adults will need continuously to learn new skills to meet the increasing employment challenges.

Opportunities to change and develop the site, buildings, technological resources and organisation of the school are limited, but funding through the specialist schools programme can enable some of this. Our main focus from the pound;130,000 we raised ourselves and the matching amount put in by the local education authority - on the instruction of the Government - has been to develop the library into an exciting independent learning centre which also has the potential to support parents and our local communities.

Everyone needs to become an independent learner. By focusing on ways of encouraging and developing active learning and independent study, we will provide young people, their parents and their communities with the skills and confidence to seize opportunities for both personal development and for employment.

Second, we are convinced of - and have proved - the huge value that new technologies can offer in motivating under-achievers, stimulating and challenging the often forgotten middle bands as well as the high-fliers. There is support for boys, for girls, for ethnic minorities, for all students. We are using new technologies to deliver the whole curriculum.

In our school we have a broad and balanced core curriculum for Years 7-11. The technological enrichment to all subjects has a far greater impact upon all children than a narrowing of focus to just a few.

There are difficulties in fitting all subjects in, but we do ensure that all areas of experience are retained so that no child at the tender age of 13 has to make life choices which could restrict their future careers. We would prefer key stage 3 to be shorter and key stage 4 longer to give us greater flexibility. But the critical concern we have is to deliver quality teaching, using technologies so that all our students become active learners, comfortable with and in control of technologies in all subject areas so they can develop for themselves their knowledge, understanding and abilities to use these.

Third, we are uncomfortable about receiving more than other schools and see this as requiring us to share facilities, knowledge and expertise with our link primary schools and neighbouring secondary schools, as well as other visitors whom we welcome. One example of this is our video conferencing link with a neighbouring primary to support the Somali refugees at our school and families of both schools.

We would be far happier if part of the funding available to all schools was for bids made for new developments which could be of value to others as well as the successful school. Bidding has its benefits as well as its problems - making a school think through carefully what it wants to do. what resources it needs and what the success criteria should be - usually much broader than bald performance scores. Raising funding has also been valuable as it has made us talk with business and industry partners, improving understanding and developing really valuable partnerships.

Other kinds of specialist colleges could also use their specialist input to infuse the whole curriculum. We hope our model will prevail!

Dame Tamsyn Imison is head of Hampstead School, north London.

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