More special than all the rest?
For every school that succeeds in becoming a specialist technology or language college, three fail. "We're desperately disappointed," said Ani Magill, head of St John the Baptist school, a 730-pupil comprehensive in Woking, Surrey. She had spent months finding 20 sponsors to put up Pounds 180,000 and was uncertain why her bid had failed. "They will write to us in three weeks to tell us why we were turned down. But we intend to try again."
Her disappointment points to a major criticism of the Government's attempt to boost languages, mathematics, science, technology and IT in schools - that money is going to upgrade buildings and equipment and increase spending by Pounds 100 per pupil in a few oversubscribed institutions, when all schools need it. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University, said that the Government's rhetoric was "technology for all", yet only a minority were getting the money. Others were being taught with sub-standard facilities or even in wooden huts.
"Technology is a subject in the national curriculum, part of the core of key stage 4, yet many schools are grossly underprovided in terms of accommodation, teachers, technological support and materials," he said.
The main thrust behind the Government's specialist school initiative is to promote skills needed for the next century, particularly those that will help Britain to resuscitate its manufacturing base. Thus, languages will help us with exports, technology will teach the next generation how to design and make new products, science and mathematics will support that; and information technology is vital.
By contrast, magnet schools in the United States were founded primarily to revive education in urban areas. This was a sub-theme of the specialist schools movement in Britain, which began with the creation of city technology colleges in 1988, independent state-maintained schools funded directly by the Department for Education and Employment.
Because so few CTCs were set up, that movement metamorphosed into the Technology Schools Initiative and ended up with yet another scheme, announced in 1993 - technology or language colleges being developed from existing schools. Compared with the CTCs, which required businesses to find millions of pounds, the drive to establish technology schools out of existing schools has succeeded.
Schools are clamouring to acquire the "specialist" tag. Businesses will put up the relatively small sums of money required, and are happy if that involves getting their computers into chosen schools. Thus, whereas only 15 CTCs were set up, 151 technology and 30 language colleges have been designated. It seems likely that the goal set by Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the CTC Trust, of a total of 300 technology colleges by next year will be met.
Criteria for schools wanting to become technology or language colleges are that they should raise Pounds 100,000 in sponsorship through cash or discounts for equipment, produce a development plan showing how their school will improve education, and show how the sponsors will be involved, perhaps by appointing a sponsor governor.
So what do the sponsors get? One technology college head, who preferred to remain nameless, said sponsors got nothing.
However, Kathleen Lund, chief executive of the CTC Trust, said they gained a greater understanding of education today, an involvement in the school's strategy, and better links with the young people who would be their future workforce.
Tim Baker, a director of the computer company GTi, said his firm was involved with 26 technology colleges, one being Chalfonts Community College (see story, right). GTi has invested about Pounds 850,000 in the colleges. "We do this because we gain 90 per cent of our income from education in one way or another," he said. The money comes from selling networks, administrative packages, and the like.
But it is not only companies which are putting up money. At Loxford Technology College in Redbridge, east London, sponsorship is coming from the League of British Muslims (Ilford branch) and from the Clore Foundation. The league is supporting the school to the tune of Pounds 10,000 because it likes what it is doing - the GCSE "pass" rate has climbed from 12.5 to 31 per cent in five years.
Loxford pupils are not privileged: almost half take free school meals, and three-quarters speak a language other than English at home. They needed the extra funding which technology status brought, said principal Hazel Farrow, because it gave them an edge.
The Loxford example illustrates the kind of school being designated a technology college now the Government has dropped the requirement that only grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools can apply. And its desire to boost four subjects - maths, science, technology and IT - reflects the Government's own broad emphasis.
Some of the new colleges are also influencing the curriculum of feeder primary schools. Tavistock College in Devon, which specialises in languages, has helped its local primaries to establish French as part of the curriculum in Year 6 and is hoping that can be extended to Year 5.
When they arrive at Tavistock College, all children take French as well as Japanese in Year 7. "We know that the future lies in portable and flexible employment," said headteacher Peter Upton. Like most other technology college principals, he opposes selection.
"The whole philosophy is not to be exclusive, but inclusive," he said. "The reason France and Germany have been more successful than us is that they're committed to educating across the broad range of ability. That is what we want to do."
To this end he is working on partnerships with other schools, something which the Labour party is committed to. Any future Labour government is expected to endorse the specialist schools development, but to ensure that they work as partners with local schools, giving access to their pupils, rather than in competition with other schools.
Ultimately, it is the notion of unfairness - that money is going only to a few schools, often already doing well - that irks people most about the specialist concept. Kathleen Lund, of the CTC Trust, rejects this. "It is not going to those that have. It's going to those who need as well," she says.
Professor Smithers is less sure. Some heads are very adroit at tapping into whatever funding is on offer, he says. First they became grant-maintained schools, then they benefited from the Technology Schools Initiative, now they have become technology colleges. All in the name of diversity. The question is whether parents in a given area really have a choice. "You need to look at diversity for the individual parent," he said.
Number of specialist colleges
CTCs 15 Technology Schools Initiative 249 Technology colleges 151 Language colleges 30
Pounds 1 million-plus sponsors of CTCs, technology and language colleges: * ADT Group * BAT Industries * British Record Industry Trust * Cable and Wireless * Hugh de Capell Brooke * Dixons Group * Sir Harry Djanogly * Garfield Weston Foundation * Haberdashers' Company * Haking Wong Enterprises * Hanson PLC * Philip and Pauline Harris Trust * Landau Foundation * Sir Geoffrey Leigh * London Docklands Development Corporation * Mercers' Company * Tarmac PLC * Vardy Foundation * Wolfson Foundation