Inspectors to vet specialist status
Ofsted will be given the power to strip secondaries of their specialist status under plans due to be announced next month.
Inspectors will decide whether schools are fit to continue in the programme and will mark out high-performing schools for additional responsibilities.
The move is intended to reduce bureaucracy and to improve accountability in the specialist schools programme.
Ministers currently have the final say about whether schools retain specialist status, which entitles them to around pound;600,000 extra over four years. Now they have agreed to cede this power to Ofsted following fears that political lobbying could affect decisions about a school's status.
The arrangements will be introduced in 2006 and have won the backing of ministers, David Bell, the chief inspector, and Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust.
Sir Cyril told The TES: "I think it will lead to a further ratcheting up of standards and reduce the bureaucratic burden on headteachers by 50 per cent. It will be a transparent process. Handing responsibility to Ofsted means MPs will no longer be able to lobby on behalf of specialist schools in their constituency."
Mr Bell is expected to outline the plans at a dinner of specialist school heads at the beginning of next month.
They will also be included in the Government's education white paper, as part of a wider drive to raise standards in secondaries and tackle low performance.
Headteachers of high-performing specialists will be encouraged to form partnerships with less successful schools. More than 600 such partnerships have been already been set up through the Specialist Schools Trust.
The white paper is also expected to include incentives for successful heads to expand their schools by taking over their failing neighbours.
Schools graded outstanding or good on the new four-point inspection scale will be eligible to apply for a second specialism, become training schools or take on the role of partners helping an underperforming schools improve.
Those judged adequate, including so-called coasting schools, will be automatically redesignated as specialists but will be warned they must improve in areas identified by inspectors before Ofsted's next visit.
Inadequate schools will lose their specialist status but retain the associated funding for a transitional period. They will also be given clear goals to meet in order to rejoin the programme.
So far, 41 schools have lost their specialist status. Of these, 21 have since rejoined the programme. Schools can lose their status if their results fall too far beyond the expected score and if they do not fulfil their community role.
The new three-yearly inspection cycle, introduced this month, will be integrated with the four-yearly assessment of specialist status in a bid to reduce specialist school heads' paperwork.
Ofsted inspectors will be trained to assess schools' specialist status redesignation plan alongside its self-evaluation.
How special? New gradings for inspections from 2006
1 or 2 Outstanding or good. High performer eligible to apply to become training school, improvement partner or to take on a second specialism.
3 Adequate. Automatically retain specialist status but must improve identified weaknesses 4 Inadequate. Lose specialist status but receive transitional funding and can rejoin the programme if standards improve.