Compromise for talent and glory

17th November 2000 at 00:00
If prodigy moulding is your passion, limited pupil selection at specialist schools hardly guarantees job fulfilment, writes Jill Parkin

Do you fancy working in a sector born of radical Toryism and raised to a full-grown compromise by Blairism? Specialist schools have quietly evolved from the city technology colleges of the 1980s.

The first handful of CTCs, with their business sponsorship plates by the classroom doors, teetered on the edge of extinction when Labour swept to power. Not only were they then saved, but three more specialisms were added: sports, arts and language. There are now 535 specialist schools, of which 312 specialise in technology, 99 in language, 67 in sport and 57 in arts. The Government's target is 800 by September 2003.

To achieve specialist status, schools must raise pound;50,000 in sponsorship, prepare four-year development plans setting targets to improve the specialist subjects and make provision to involve other schools and the community. In return, successful applicants receive a pound;100,000 capital grant and pound;123 extra per pupil per year, initially for four years.

There is no evidence that specialist schools are finding it easy to recruit teachers, say the unions and teaching agencies. Specialist technology schools may have a slight, though undocumented, edge when it comes to recruiting technology teachers simply because they are better equipped.

As Professor Alan Smithers of the centre for education and employment research at Liverpool University says: "They might find it easier to recruit because most ordinary schools are underfunded to deliver the technology parts of the national curriculum."

Few schools are having trouble finding teachers to fill vacancies in one of the specialisms: sport. Applications to the Teacher Training Agency for sport greatl exceed the spaces, not least because teaching is one of few career paths for sports graduates.

There are several reasons - apart from a national teacher shortage - why no one is queueing to teach at specialist schools. "If a school has gone for specialist status and funding to help climb out of special measures or because it has been identified as having serious weaknesses, then it is still going to be difficult to recruit," says Olive Forsyth of the National Union of Teachers.

Then there are ideological objectors, devotees of true comprehensiveness who see specialist schools as a form of social engineering. The Government allows up to 30 per cent of secondary-age pupils in any education authority to be at specialist schools. Eight authorities already have reached this limit; 13 more are nearing it.

The administrative headache involved in sharing facilities with other schools and the community - something specialist schools must promise to do in order to get funding - may also reduce their allure. Failure to comply can mean loss of specialist status.

It is probably the compromise nature of the specialist schools which most affects recruitment. The CTCs were allowed to select about half of their pupils on grounds of technological aptitude. Specialist schools can select only up to 10 per cent, hardly enough to turn them into hothouses of achievement. If prodigy moulding is your passion, specialist schools hardly guarantee fulfilment.

"Selection by ability runs counter to government policy. It's a contradiction to have specialist schools which are not able to select effectively. It's a compromise policy which really amounts to extra funding," says Professor Smithers.

And that may not be enough to make a job at a specialist school one of teaching's glittering prizes.

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