A not so special makeover

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Ron Glatter says that by expanding the specialist schools' concept, the Government is actually limiting parental choice.

WHAT'S so special about the specialist schools' concept? Not content with proposing to turn half our secondaries into specialist schools, the Prime Minister says this is just a stepping stone, not a ceiling. The majority could be specialist.

Laudably, he wants to close the resources gap with the independent sector, but independent schools don't usually promote themselves as specialist schools, preferring an image as generalists. So what's the big deal and will it deliver the hoped-for benefits?

The evidence base is too slim to support such a massive shift. Although the early specialist schools have, on average, turned in creditable GCSE performances, this could be for many reasons, including the years of extra resources enjoyed by the substantial number of these schools that were formerly grant-maintained. We cannot conclude that this performance will be sustained when specialists comprise not 10 per cent but 50 per cent or more of all secondaries. And the research doesn't cover the effect on the non-specialist schools in the specialists' localities.

A key part of specialist schools' appeal to ministers may lie in what they're not rather than in what they are. They aren't selective, at least not by ability. And to judge by the Green Paper, they aren't "one size fits all". English state schools have long been more diverse than those in many other countries. There is more acceptance elsewhere of the notion of high-quality common schools.

However, in England a big push towards greater uniformity occurred not in the 1970s but the 1990s. Two factors were responsible for this. First, there were the centrally-driven standardising pressures of the national curriculum, league tables and inspection. Second, there was the "market" need, arising from pupil-led funding, for most schools to make a broad appeal to get as many children as possible through the door.

The Government now wants to change this. At bottom, the specialist schools policy is a rebranding exercise, designed to lift the image of secondary education in the ees of the media, Treasury and public, and especially of the private sponsors whose additional funding is sought. But is the specialist schools' concept the right vehicle for this mass rebranding?

In the 1990s I directed a research study which showed how constrained choice was for parents. In a heavily urbanised area, only two out of every three parents felt they had a realistic choice of more than two schools. In a semi-rural setting just one in every four thought they had such a choice, and in a medium-sized town barely over half did so. With so many parents feeling their choice is limited, what will be the effect of the widescale introduction of specialist schooling?

Ironically, a policy designed to expand school diversity seems likely to reduce, not enhance, parents' perceptions of the extent of choice and to increase their frustration about the options on offer. How many parents will feel comfortable about identifying their child's subject strengths at the age of 10 or 11? For example, foreign language teaching in our primary schools is very limited. What basis would many parents have for making a confident choice in favour of a languages college? If a school offers itself as a sports college, parents have to make a choice in favour of what will widely be perceived as a non-academic specialism, in a culture in which academic achievement is most highly prized.

Parents may well end up feeling they are in a worse position than before, and that the flipside of "one size fits all" is "there's no suitable size available". Some may seek out the only respectable generalist schools on offer, in the independent sector.

If it is re-elected and proceeds with this policy, the Government will have to row back from it sooner or later as the limiting aspects of the image become apparent. Then the rebranding exercise will begin again. Only this time it will need to include restoring the status of generalist schooling in the state sector.

Ron Glatter is Professor of Educational Management at The Open University, and was Director of the Parental and School Choice Interaction (PASCI) study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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