In January, there were 480 specialist schools, with 86 per cent of all LEAs in England having at least one specialist school. The Government aims to have at least 500 specialist schools by this September and at least 800 by September 2003.
All maintained secondary schools can apply to become a specialist school, but they must consult with their LEA, prepare a four-year development plan, and involve other schools and the wider community. Schools must also raise pound;50,000 sponsorship.
Some schools are fortunate in obtaining sponsorship. The network company 3Com, for example, has helped Thomas Telford College in the Midlands, J F Kennedy school in Hemel Hempstead, and Rainford High School near St Helens, to become specialist schools. Sponsorship often takes the form of funding andor equipment donation. But Nigel Paine, chief executive of the Technology Colleges Trust (TCTrust) admits: "It's difficultto get money from suppliers for matched sponsorship." However, schools are using many alternative - and effective - strategies to make savings or raise funds. He adds: "Trusts are still very generous, and there are other ways, such as getting parents to sponsor individual machines, or setting-up a PTA training room."
Some observers are sceptical about sponsorship, pointing out that some sponsors subsequently do a great deal of business with their "beneficiaries", although the rules regarding educational supplier companies sponsoring schools have changed over the past six months. DFEE rules now state that educational suppliers (companies that could benefit economically or commercially from an association with a school) can only provide sponsorship indirectly through a third party.
Paine explains the rules change: "A few suppliers were attaching strings to their sponsorship, such as 'We'll pay you pound;10,000 if you do pound;20,000 of business with us.' I should stress that none of the major educational suppliers resorted to this. I hope companies like RM will renew their sponsorship programmes." (RM has provided over pound;2.5 million over five years to more than 100 specialist schools.).