The colour of money

26th June 2009 at 01:00
Is there anything more to specialist status than cash - and lots of it? Critics of the programme claim schools that opt to be `special' in one subject area are admitting to a lack of focus elsewhere in the curriculum. So perhaps `bog-standard' comprehensives aren't that ordinary after all . Nick Morrison reports

Science, languages and sport may not seem to be natural bedfellows, but headteacher Jeremy Nicholls has had no qualms about his school acquiring specialist status in all three subjects over the past seven years.

His school, Litcham High in Norfolk, became a science college seven years ago, a languages college three years ago and a sports college in 2007.

The extra funding of pound;240,000 represents about 9 per cent on top of his annual budget. Because of it, he has been able to employ a Spanish specialist, which helped increase the take-up of modern languages at key stage 4 from 45 to 80 per cent over 18 months. Sports status meant Litcham could tap into a government pot for an additional pound;350,000 to improve facilities, including a new dance studio. The school has also been able to increase the number of teaching groups in English and maths to help children with special needs.

"It is an indispensable part of our budget now," he says. "We have ensured the specialist areas benefit from the extra money, but we see it as a whole-school success."

With the extra cash available, it's no wonder that specialist status is proving irresistible for many schools. The corresponding decline in the number of non-specialist schools seems a vindication of the campaign against those pejoratively dubbed "bog standard".

Once upon a time, to be a `bog-standard comprehensive' meant you were part of an overwhelming majority. Coined by a Downing Street wonk, the bog standard label aimed to signal a determination to overhaul what was portrayed as a tired school system. Now a small, and dwindling, band carries that label.

From humble beginnings with the opening of 15 technology colleges in 1987, specialist schools now represent almost 92 per cent of all secondary schools in England. Where once it was just technology, schools can now choose from one of 10 specialisms. Some schools have two, a handful have three. In 33 local authority areas, every secondary school is a specialist school.

So whatever happened to the bog-standard comprehensive? The expanding academies programme is one factor, but by far the biggest has been the increase in specialist schools. Supporters point to improved results and a renewed focus, but are specialist schools really all they're cracked up to be?

"We're a bog standard comprehensive, and proud of it," says David Trace, headteacher of Ramsey Grammar School in the Isle of Man. Mr Trace is one of the few heads unable to apply for specialist status. Although the school, grammar in name only, follows the English curriculum, the Isle of Man is not covered by the specialist schools scheme. But if that means his school is `just a comprehensive' then he's not complaining.

"I have never been happy with the whole specialist school idea," he says. "It has always seemed to me that if you're a good school, then you are specialist at everything, and to highlight one particular area is to say we're not as good at all the rest."

Mr Trace, a member of the national council on the Association of School and College Leaders, says he recognises the pressure heads in England are under to pursue specialist status. Funding is a key consideration, with a pound;100,000 capital grant and an additional pound;129 per pupil per year available for specialist schools. But while he believes most heads take a pragmatic view, and see specialisation primarily as a way of bringing in extra money, he has concerns about the effects on other areas of the curriculum and about the perception of the school among parents and pupils.

"If a school wants to be a specialist language college, then good luck to it, but does that mean it does more languages than anybody else, or at the expense of other subjects?"

Ramsey is a rural school and draws its 1,050 pupils from a 100 square mile catchment area. Few parents have a chance to send their children elsewhere. "It would be quite negative for some parents if we said we were a specialist maths and computing school. There are so many drawbacks to it," Mr Trace says.

Fiona Hammans is blunt about the attraction of specialist status. "Money. It is nothing more than that," she says. Specialist status means an extra pound;200,000 a year for her school, Banbury in Oxfordshire, money she could not afford to turn down, although she admits that choosing an area of expertise was a statistical exercise.

Schools have to demonstrate stable or rising whole-school attainment, with two or three lead subjects to qualify for specialist status. Second and third specialisms are available if schools meet criteria combining Ofsted judgments with GCSE results.

"We looked at the data and we could prove improvement in drama and English," Dr Hammans says. "It fits humanities, and we added citizenship as our third area. It wasn't a philosophical statement - we were absolutely cynical about it."

She says she understands concerns that specialisation may restrict choice. As well as Banbury School, parents in the town have the choice of a Roman Catholic school or an academy, but Dr Hammans believes few will make their selection on the basis of any specialism. Perhaps ironically, she is keen for Banbury to adopt another specialism, to cover as much of the curriculum as possible.

"We want to be all things to all students," she says. "One of our concerns about specialism is that it can skew the curriculum and the experiences of pupils. A second specialism would pick up the majority of curriculum subjects, so everyone is special."

B anbury had previously been designated a technology school from 1996 to 2001, when poor results meant it was dropped from the scheme. The requirement to meet a certain threshold has added to pressure to become specialist: if you have to reach a certain level to be accepted, then not taking part implies you haven't reached that level.

Dr Hammans acknowledges this could mean a school denied access to the programme on the grounds of poor results is left even farther behind.

"If you're not specialist, there is an assumption that you're not good enough. It might be fairer to put more money into schools that don't meet the criteria, rather than reinforcing circumstances we already have," she says.

Mr Nicholls argues that better performance comes from the galvanising effect specialist status endows on schools. With specialist status comes a degree of concentration, he says, it being human nature to redouble your efforts when you are aware you are under scrutiny. Annual research carried out for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) appears to back this up, consistently showing specialist schools outperforming bog- standard schools in national exams.

However, if there is a belief that specialist schools get better results in their chosen specialism, this was challenged by research by academics at Buckingham University published earlier this year. The study compared A-level and GCSE physics grades for pupils at specialist science schools with those of pupils at language and maths schools, and found that A-level results were better at the non-science schools, while there was little difference in GCSE grades. A recent parliamentary question from shadow schools minister Nick Gibb found that nearly a third of all specialist science schools have no GCSE physics.

While this seemed to expose the mantra of specialisation equals expertise as a myth, the SSAT argues that the number of children taking natural sciences as individual subjects, rather than a combined double science award, has increased as a result of the growth in specialist science schools. Science schools are five times more likely to offer physics as a stand-alone subject. The trust also says that while some schools adopt a specialism because they are already proficient in teaching it, others choose it as an area to focus on, knowing there is room for improvement.

Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, and co-author of the comparative research, argues that it is not specialisation that has made a difference to schools. "The specialism per se has not done much to improve the quality of education; it is the extra money that has enabled schools to improve."

He says ministers' enthusiastic promotion of the specialist school movement from the late 1990s onwards was a response to a feeling that schools needed shaking up, but the Government had little appetite for addressing the main factor in determining a school's success or failure: its intake. Although specialist schools are allowed to select up to 10 per cent of their intake through aptitude for the particular specialism, in practice few do this.

"The Government wanted to shake up the comprehensive system and it saw specialist schools as a way of doing that without getting into the difficult area of admissions and selection," he says. "The comprehensive system had got a bit tired, but as a basis for devising a post- comprehensive system, specialist schools have really been a delusion."

Professor Smithers says the improvement in standards in specialist schools is attributable to the extra money they have received. The result is it is less a specialist schools programme than a general improvement programme.

He says schools were essentially bribed to take part. Once the number in the scheme reached a tipping point, all the remaining eligible schools fell into line, leaving a rump outside the tent that were unable to meet the criteria. Deprived of the extra money available to their specialist counterparts, these bog-standard schools are in danger of falling further behind, providing a powerful, albeit circular, argument in favour of specialist schools. "The Government was right to take a fresh look at the system, but wrong to do it in the way they have," Professor Smithers says.

But not everyone thinks specialist status makes little difference. "It has taken us from being an underperforming school to one that Ofsted classified as outstanding in March," says John Townsley, head of Morley High in Leeds and chair of the SSAT's headteacher steering group.

He says the main benefit from being a specialist school is membership of a large - and growing - network of schools. "I can't tell you the number of ideas I've taken from other specialist schools," he says. "Many of those have been the key to improvement." For schools left out of this group, improving standards is still possible, but the lack of external support makes it harder.

He doesn't discount the effect of the extra funding, however. The Pounds 100,000 capital sum Morley received when it became a specialist technology college in 2003 paid for two new science laboratories, while the Pounds 170,000 a year is a sizeable addition to the school's Pounds 5.4 million annual budget. "A lot of our budget is tied up in salaries, so it is really important to have that additional money," he says.

Mr Townsley denies that having a specialism means a school neglects other subjects. At Morley, the technology specialism has had an effect across the curriculum, he says. "It is a misconception that a technology college purely concentrates on that. We have a role to play as a centre of excellence and we use that to move the whole school forward. It is absolutely central to everything we're about as an organisation.

"I don't think a school that is not a specialist school is doomed to failure, but it is not seizing an opportunity which could be at the heart of its continuing improvement."

But analysis carried out by Stephen Gorard, professor of education research at Birmingham University, suggests that once the impact of the additional funding is taken out, there is little difference in performance. "I don't know why becoming a specialist school would necessarily lead to better results," he says. "The deeper you dig, the easier it is to find explanations other than the type of school."

He says while the SSAT's research comparing specialist schools with the rest excludes grammar schools on the basis they are selective, they include those who take children who fail the 11-plus, the old secondary moderns. He argues that schools in special measures, unable to join the specialist school scheme, should also be removed from any comparisons. "It is not surprising that specialist schools do well, but if you compare like with like the difference disappears."

Although the arguments about better results may not stack up, specialist status could still be an important way of invigorating schools, he says. But evidence from other countries, including those such as Finland and within the Pacific Rim that traditionally score highly on international tests, suggests schools don't need to be specialist to do well.

"Most of them have generalist schools and most of them are doing fine," Dr Gorard says. "The bog-standard school seems all right to me." Even specialist schools are not really that much different from bog-standard ones, he adds. "The difference is the name, joining a club and the money they get."

But it does look as though the days of the average comprehensive are numbered. Those that remain fall into two camps, Dr Gorard says: those who have resisted specialist status on principle, and those who don't qualify. The first group will find it increasingly hard to continue to hold out against the money on offer, while the latter are coming under growing pressure to become academies.

Aveland High falls into this second category. The 350-pupil school in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, applied to become a specialist humanities school but was turned down for failing to meet the criteria on community involvement. Now Aveland, in conjunction with nearby St George's College, is bidding to become an academy, reducing the ranks of the bog standard still further.

Paul Watson, principal of both Aveland and St George's, says the process of putting together a bid for specialist status was useful in highlighting the school's strengths and weaknesses. But while specialist status would have provided a focus for improvement, that will now have to come from academy status.

Whatever motives have inspired such an overwhelming majority of schools to become specialist, the days of the bog-standard comp look numbered as they are squeezed in the clinch between specialist schools and academies. But even if the name dies, condemned by a desire to prove that education has been transformed, their spirit lives on in specialist schools that are not really specialist at all. The bog-standard school is (almost) dead; long live the bog-standard school.

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