Specialist schools no better than others

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Adi Bloom examines papers published at the British Educational Research Association conference in London this week

SPECIALIST SCHOOLS, one of the key elements of the Government's education strategy, are no more effective than any other state school.

Researchers from Staffordshire and Cambridge universities examined GCSE grades in all English schools from 1999 to 2004. They found that once relevant variables were taken into account, the results obtained by specialist schools were no better than those achieved by conventional comprehensives.

At best, specialist schools achieved a 1 percentage point increase in the proportion of pupils achieving five A* to C grades. At worst, acquiring specialist status had no impact at all on GCSE grades. The exception were sports schools, which had slightly worse results than other secondaries.

To obtain specialist status for a four-year period, a school has to attract at least pound;50,000 of private sector funding. This is supplemented with government funding of about pound;600,000 over four years. The researchers found the returns from this investment were no higher than in any other school.

Geoff Pugh, of Staffordshire University, said: "The additional money spent on specialist schools does have an effect, but there's the improvement in pupil performance that you would expect if you invested in any other type of school."

Since specialist schools were introduced in 1994, the Government has encouraged expansion of the sector, claiming specialist status enhances pupil performance. Now 2,697 (80 per cent) of England's 3,367 secondaries are specialist.

"The first wave to go specialist were characterised by drive and initiative on behalf of school management and teaching staff," Professor Pugh said. "So the early schools were probably high-performers anyway. Later schools might not have as much to offer. They're maybe jumping on a bandwagon."

Stephen Gorard, of Birmingham University, has also been researching the effectiveness of specialist schools. He agrees that schools are unlikely to improve dramatically with specialist status. In fact, he believes this may explain the lower performance of sports specialists.

"You don't get lower results because you're a sports college," he said. "But you might become a sports college because you have lower results."

David Crossley, of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, defended the initiative. "There is no doubt that specialist schools continue to raise standards and provide students with opportunities to realise their full potential," he said. "It is important that the focus shifts from comparing specialist and non-specialist schools to implementing best practice across all schools."

Professor Pugh said: "There's no magic bullet in educational policy. Schools are finding it harder and harder to maintain standards, so any improvement is often a triumph."

* g.t.pugh@staffs.ac.uk

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