Specialist schools fail to boost results in their own subjects

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
More funding and a better intake are all that lie behind their success, says study

The specialist schools programme has failed to deliver widespread improvements in standards, according to damning research into the key Labour education policy.

The idea that specialisms help schools do better is based on an "illusion", the University of Buckingham study finds.

Results suggest that attending a specialist college does not lead to better grades in that subject or greater success at A-level, the academics said.

The only real benefit to schools is the considerable extra funding they receive. And the process for becoming a specialist freezes out lower-performing schools, making claims about the success of the programme misleading, the report says.

"All that the comparisons show is that if you take effective schools and give them extra money, they do better than less effective schools without extra money," said Professor Alan Smithers, one author of the study.

Analysis of results shows that grades are still largely determined by the nature of the school's demographic, rather than specialist status, the report says.

In particular, the study looks at the impact of specialist science schools on pupils taking physics GCSEs and A-levels. In 2007, pupils at specialist music, languages and maths schools got more A grades in A-level physics than pupils at specialist science schools.

Results for physics GCSEs were similar in schools with specialisms such as science, languages and maths.

Dr Pamela Robinson, another of the study's authors, said the specialist programme had resulted in lots of schools "with names that do not mean very much". "It seems odd having music and languages schools that do better in science than the science schools," she said.

The specialist schools movement has formed a key plank of Labour policy over the past 12 years. Their numbers have expanded rapidly, with around 90 per cent of all secondaries now specialist.

After raising an initial Pounds 50,000 in sponsorship, a 1,000-pupil specialist school receives an additional Pounds 600,000 over four years.

The study found that specialist schools fell into two broad categories: academic or practical.

Comprehensives opting for academic specialisms tended to have pupils with better prior attainment, lower eligibility for free school meals and fewer special needs.

Of the 440 schools in the National Challenge, just over half have practical specialisms, while only 14 per cent have academic specialisms, Professor Smithers said.

He added that the first wave of schools to gain specialist status had benefited from extra funding and becoming members of an "exclusive club".

"But the benefits do not scale up to improve all schools," he said. "The programme has contributed to the unevenness of the secondary system.

"An urgent problem that needs to be addressed is how to bring this diverse mix of schools together."

It is not the first time the specialist schools movement has come under attack.

Christine Gilbert, chief inspector at Ofsted, told a conference of specialist school teachers in 2007 that there was little evidence their status was any guarantee of improved results.

But the Government and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust have defended the programme.

Elizabeth Reid, chief executive of the trust, said: "Specialist science colleges have boosted science teaching and take up, as even Professor Smithers acknowledges. His report says that science colleges are over five times more likely to offer GCSE physics than other schools.

"Specialist schools are fully comprehensive and use their specialism as a catalyst for whole-school improvement, ensuring more young people leave school with a good education and a good set of qualifications."

A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman said: "Specialist status gives a valuable cash boost to schools, but more importantly it gives an extra focus and drive that raises standards across the aboard. This can only be a good thing."

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