Speaking at the launch of his book last week, Excellence in Education: the making of great schools, Sir Cyril Taylor, chair of the Specialist Schools Trust, was in bullish mood. Within a few years, he predicted, all state secondary schools in England would be specialist, apart from 200 or so hard cases which would convert to, or be replaced by, city academies.
Cynics, who point to Sir Cyril's past as an adviser to Tory ministers as evidence that his model for secondary education is elitist, would not be too surprised to hear that his co-author is a former spin doctor to David Blunkett. New Labour's model for education, many argue, is also an elitist construct, designed to create great schools for the middle classes, while establishing a pecking order with academies and posh-sounding language colleges at the top and sports colleges at the bottom.
News that only a handful of the schools queuing to enter the specialist fold want to become language colleges, however, suggests a more complicated reality. In truth, the system that is evolving is more market-driven than elitist. Languages may be popular in the prosperous suburbs (especially those with easy access to the Eurostar), but the mass of our island race believe they can get by without them. The fact that they are no longer compulsory after the age of 14 suggests ministers, too, place a fairly low priority on linguistic skill, although David Miliband himself may have an excellent command of French (Diary, 25).
There is evidence that many schools have benefited from becoming specialist and that standards in those schools have risen. Additional funding obviously helps. Indeed, one of the iniquities of specialisation has been that the incentive has been driven by money and, in institutional terms, self-interest, leaving many schools with inferior resources. Sir Cyril can now argue, more persuasively than in the past, that specialist schools truly believe in partnership and inclusion. Time will tell whether the market and the money will deliver a better, more equitable system.