Specialist schools can be seen as backdoor selection. In Sheffield, they're all at it, encouraged by the local authority. The aim is not competitition but collaboration, writes Gerald Haigh
There are economically diverse cities, and then there's Sheffield, which is in a league of its own. At one end of the scale is the North and East where - as Sheffielders will be telling visitors for many years to come - The Full Monty was filmed. And at the other is the affluent South - Hallam, with the highest proportion of graduates resident in any parliamentary constituency in the country.
Sheffield, by a number of measures which include educational achievement, is now an improving city, moving on from the dark era of post-industrial decline. GCSE results are moving up and a new sixth-form college is planned for the north-east of the city.
What's being proposed and planned in Sheffield now, though, is an ambitious scheme of a different order - every secondary school in the city is going to become a specialist college. It is nothing less than a determined attempt by the authority and all the city's secondaries to work together on an ambitious programme of mutual support in the cause of improving teaching and learning. The idea is also to promote links with primary schools to improve teaching standards there and to develop links with local communities.
It is a move that has demanded some delicate negotiations, not least when the 27 secondary heads sat round a table to agree that they would not use specialist school status as a backdoor introduction of selection.
"A competitive secondary system is not going to help the city in its economic upturn," says Steve Robinson, head of Chaucer high school in the deprived north-east of Sheffield. "Nor will it benefit those communities most in need of support."
At the moment, 12 of the city's 27 secondaries are specialist colleges, covering between them technology, languages, sports and arts. Another eight will come into existence by 2005, extending the subject range to business and enterprise, maths and computing, engineering, and science. The remaining schools, if all goes well, should become specialist by 2006.
There are huge implications in this - not least that if there's to be even coverage across the city, schools will have to decide together, with the authority, rather than alone, on what sort of specialism to go for, supporting each other through the process.
The rewards will come in the form of increased choice for pupils, both within the school day and beyond, and in better understanding and working between local business and education. This should lead, in turn, to more motivated pupils.
If collaboration is to be a working reality, the mechanics of liaison between schools, and between sectors - primary, secondary, further and higher education - and business, remain to be worked out. How might Chaucer, for example, a business and enterprise college, work with nearby Firth Park - specialism performing arts - to the mutual advantage of both sets of pupils? And how can they both reach out in practical ways to their communities of primary schools?
At All Saints' Catholic secondary, for example. Jim Kelly, head since 1976, has developed what he calls, "a good Catholic school, looking after its neighbourhood". Funny, wise, modest and entirely dedicated to his task, Kelly is the archetype of the many unsung heroes who are making a difference to the lives of young people in our inner cities. Under his leadership, the school successfully bid in 2001 to become a specialist sports college. It wasn't an obvious choice. "We had a single gymnasium and a field," he says. What he was interested in, though, was not so much the development of resources within the school as the way the school could use PE and sport to reach out to other schools and community groups.
Crucially, sports college status enabled the school to become the focus of a local school sport co-ordinator programme - part of what is a nationwide Sport England initiative aimed at promoting sport at the grassroots. This provides the school with the rationale, staff and funding to bring about Jim Kelly's vision of using sport to reach into the schools and areas where there is, as he puts it, "a critical mass of disadvantage".
All Saints is now the focus of PE and sports development work with pupils, teachers, parents and community workers across the south-east of the city.
The director of PE and sport at All Saints, carrying that wider community brief, is Steve McKeown, seconded from the PE adviser's post with the authority. The PE teacher's role, he believes, is fundamentally changing as the boundaries between schools and between schools and community start to blur.
"We used to show progress by running more teams," he says. "Now it's a professional development role, galvanising, enthusing, linking with professionals outside education as well as with teachers."
It's clear that what's happening at All Saints is a model for how school collaboration might work in other areas of the curriculum.
Bernard Campbell, Sheffield's Head of Strategic Initiatives points out that plans for collaboration go well beyond schools, to encompass further and higher education. Specialist schools will also link with relevant businesses. The broad vision is that the programme feeds into the overall plan for the regeneration of the South Yorkshire region.
It is a fascinating example of a new kind of authority-school partnership, where schools act in powerful and confident ways, supported by an authority which has an eye for the wider picture. Steve Robinson says: "There's a view that education has to change - and the people best able to do this are in the schools." At the same time, he acknowledges, the authority has to exercise leadership. "Individual schools, in different circumstances, can only do certain things."
Jim Kelly is now moving from school to the authority to co-ordinate the whole collaboration initiative.
The focus always returns, though, to the quality of teaching and learning in individual schools - collaboration has to rest on strong foundations. A good example of a school that's much improved in recent years, and is now looking outward to its partners and the wider community, is Firth Park, a specialist arts college in the north of the City. Its head, Mo Laycock, has wrought massive changes there since she arrived in 1995 to find a school in special measures with 76 per cent attendance, a poor local reputation and a split site that was difficult to manage.
With the help of the authority and the support of local MP, David Blunkett, Mo Laycock got the school on to one site in a refurbished building and since then there's been what she describes as year-on-year improvement. "Now we're full, with a waiting list, and parents know that if they want Firth Park they have to make it first preference."
Performing arts status arrived last September. Mo Laycock and her team have lost no time in networking not just with other schools but with theatres and art galleries. The director of arts, Sarah Catlow, says, "We're working with four primary partners, some of our teachers going to each of them. This year I've found that pupils coming into Year 7 know the staff and some of the skills and that's very important."
Symbolic of the spirit of this whole initiative is Louise Kenworthy, trained to teach dance but not a qualified school teacher. Hers is an imaginative appointment: someone chosen primarily for enthusiasm and skill.
"They were looking for someone passionate about dance who wanted to work with children," she says "And they also said that lack of qualified teacher status wasn't so much a problem. So I started in September."
The school is leading her through a school-based PGCE and she's already making an impact, with projects linking dance to sport and other interests.
"They automatically think they'll be in ballet tights, but it it has to be something they can relate to," she says, "When they become more confident they can move on to something different."
It's not difficult to see just how well Miss Kenworthy's work will go down with pupils across all ages, and - along with the outreach work that's going on at All Saints - it's a fine example of how Sheffield heads are starting to make things happen both inside and outside the walls of their own schools through the application of some lateral thinking and a developing culture of collaboration that bids fair to create a whole that's much more than the sum of its parts.