Schools should be a place for all talents

26th March 2004 at 00:00
Specialist secondaries need a more compelling rationale than the desire to be different, says Douglas Osler

One supermarket chain labels its most expensive range as "finest". The customer can buy the regular produce or go for the special goods which are presumably considered to offer something better. It is an interesting concept. We could debate whether what is on offer means "standard and better" or "basic and refined" or "first and second class". It's all in the terminology. I suppose we should be grateful that independent schools haven't copied this marketing strategy.

I have a similar uncertainty about moves towards specialist schools. On the one hand, Scottish education is seriously unwilling to experiment out of fear of failing, but I am not sure about the designation of a school as "specialist" for no apparently compelling reason other than the wish of a local authority to be different. Partly, I am influenced by a visit to a specialist mathematics school in the United States which had one of the unhappiest pupil populations I have met. Imagine all those adolescent number-heads in one building.

It is easy to understand the reluctance of schools or individual teachers to experiment. Children have one good chance at education and if a manager or teacher gets it wrong, second chances are hard to come by. There are plenty of examples of adults whose reading or counting is poor because they were exposed to a scheme later dubbed as flawed and discarded.

I recall an international research conference where the researchers were identifiable partly by their uniform of blue blazers and fawn chinos and partly by not being able to recall the details of previous research findings which led to initiatives abandoned by them for the next funded project but still being followed by some unconvinced teacher in New Orleans.

We live in a culture summed up by the tabloid headline "someone must be blamed for this" and that is a disincentive to experimentation if anything is. But then there is a difference between experimentation and innovation.

I have always admired the ability of further education to innovate, then to refresh or terminate. In schools, it takes a decade to introduce change, for example in examinations. But in FE, if there is scope for a new course, it is planned, introduced, run for a year then evaluated and repeated or not as the customers require. The context is different certainly, but the culture is to provide what will benefit the clients and to do so for the immediate cohort not the one still learning to read in primary 1.

Some authorities have designated schools as specialist schools in sports, catering, technology, music and the like at a time when the idea is being dropped in other countries. Whether those who urge the creation of these schools would consider religious schools to fall within their definition of specialist is an interesting thought.

There is nothing wrong with the notion of identifying and nurturing special talents and skills. To do so requires perceptive teachers and responsive management, along with resources and staffing sufficient to let the gifted youngsters excel. The pertinent question for a local authority is whether an unusually talented child can be identified and supported to the point of excellence irrespective of where he or she goes to school. If not, why not?

There is something odd about a management decision (I erased bureaucratic) to designate a school as "specialist" without regard to the talents of the pupils at that school. In the case of music schools, the children are usually selected before entry to ensure they have the necessary aptitude (though given the way in which children's interests change, it is probably more a parental than a child choice).

But if you attend the local comprehensive, you will waken up to the joyous news that someone thinks you should be educated in a secondary school professing a specialism possibly light years away from your interests or those of most of the pupils.

There are, of course, reasons why a particular emphasis in a school can be very much in the interests of children. It makes sense to emphasise languages near the IBM international call centre, fish farming in Plockton or tourism in St Andrews because there are employment opportunities. But on what basis are the more maverick choices made? Existing facilities? Most effective subject department?

One argument is that the labelling gives a sense of purpose and that excellence in one aspect of a school's endeavours rubs off on others. I doubt that. Teachers in other departments will point to the improved resources, staffing ratios and preferential local contacts which follow specialist status as creating an uneven playing field and they might feel they are "basic" rather than "finest".

Then again, what happens to the outstanding sports pupil in a catering or technology school? Will that talent still be sought out, encouraged and given the same opportunities as would be available if the school happened to have a sports specialism? Will the achievements of those who excel outside the specialism receive the same celebration? There is also a danger that the attraction of being in a school labelled for your subject will attract good staff away from other schools.

It could be suggested that pupils can travel to a specialist school of their choice. That only works in areas where there is a choice and there are never going to be designated schools sufficient to develop the wide range of aspects in which pupils have talents. Why should they move school to get the best? By and large, pupils don't travel to study a subject of their choice, they settle for what is on offer. Come to that, why should the customer pay for the "finest" when the "standard" should be the supermarket's best?

What it comes down to is that every school in the state system should be offering the best opportunities across the whole range of activities to match the needs of all the pupils who attend. Everything on the shelves should be "finest".

Douglas Osler is the former head of HM inspectorate of education.

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