A new way to be divisive?

1st January 1999 at 00:00

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 Pounds 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.


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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