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

There are occasions when disagreement is not only a duty but a pleasure. This is not one of them. I have no argument with Hampstead School's reasons for seeking specialist status, nor with what it is doing with the extra resources which that status brings. And Dame Tamsyn and I appear to have similar reservations about how the policy may be misused.

Schools are well practised in adapting apparently earmarked funding to their own purposes. Hampstead School has used specialist funding to enrich technology across a broad and balanced curriculum, not to elevate it at the expense of other subjects. It is committed to sharing its expertise and resources with other schools and its community (as the Government intends), not to secure a competitive advantage as was the previous Conservative model.

It takes all those from the locality who wish to come to the school, rather than using its specialism as a basis for partial selection from a much wider area. This particular specialist school therefore allays anxiety about the policy by putting it into practice in thoroughly principled ways.

Some causes for anxiety are nevertheless recognised even in the case for the defence. Its opening sentences deny the claim, made in the 1997 White Paper and repeated by ministers since, that without such government sponsoring of diversity, comprehensive schools will remain too much alike. In so far as the American magnet schools provide useful lessons about the benefits of "playing to curriculum strengths", those lessons include the risks both of premature specialisation and of intakes "engineered" at the expense of nearby schools with less exalted specialisms or with none at all.

In urban areas, neighbouring schools may develop complementary (even different but equal) strengths in the interests of widening choice. Such a non-competitive division of labour is difficult to envisage in less populated areas without impractical expensive and disruptive bussing. Where there is competition for pupils, especially those most likely to enhance school performance, even the appearance of being different - especially when reinforced by partial selection and better resources - is likely to attract the more ambitious and confident parents.

Even if ministers were justified in distinguishing as firmly as they do between strictly limited selection "by aptitude for particular subjects" from the bad old 11-plus, there is too much evidence of "selection by interest" being used to shape an intake not to worry about those possibilities of "leaching talent from other local schools" which Dame Tamsyn so firmly rejects.

So my reservations are not about her specialist school. They are about a whole programme which the Government has declared to be a success (and therefore worth rapidly expanding) in advance of any serious evaluation of its effects - not only on the schools admitted but also on those around them. It is a conspicuous example of providing conditional funding, tempting schools which are struggling with their budgets or desperate for capital spending to suddenly discover a curriculum strength, or to do for ready money what they would not choose to do without that incentive.

The bidding process itself may concentrate the mind, as Dame Tamsyn suggests. It may also bring a considerable and perhaps eventually fruitless diversion of planning time and energy. Advocates of the policy sometimes give the impression that schools with initiative will want specialist status, which is unfair on those which do not.

Ministers sometimes claim that a high proportion of "good" and "improving" schools have already done so, and infer that their success has been caused by specialising. Educational cause-and effect is too complicated for such simplifications. Dame Tamsyn would agree that there are good comprehensive schools of all kinds. The present Government (somewhat ironically in view of its insistence on "standards not structures") appears to accept and even encourage different categories of secondary school. These can too easily be transformed into a hierarchy in which the non-specialist (including the good-all-round) community school is at a disadvantage.

Yet Hampstead School itself not only remains a community school, its commitment to new technologies so permeates the curriculum that it is much easier to see it as building upon a particular approach to learning than on a distinctive curriculum identity. Perhaps its best service to schools beyond its neighbourhood will be to show what can be done with extra resources , and what is so difficult to do without them - to develop in all students the curiosity and capacity for finding out which a learning society requires of its citizens.

Tony Edwards is emeritus Professor of Education at Newcastle University. From 1991-98, he chaired the governors at a Northumberland community high school which chose not to seek specialist status. His briefing paper 'Specialisation without Selection?' was published by the Research and Information on State Education Trust in May 1998.

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