Deprived city areas benefit from a scheme which has lured middle-classparents back to the state school system, says Gillian Penlington.
When the Government announced that it was going to expand the specialist schools programme, you would think from some of the reactions that it had called for the reintroduction of the 11-plus. Education experts and union officials alike have heralded the death of the comprehensive ideal and the return to a two-tier school regime. In fact, the specialist schools policy is a clever example of the best kind of Labour spin: it appeals to the middle classes while actually targeting those most in need.
Specialist schools may seem like a device invented to give more money to already affluent schools. Certainly, the criteria for schools wishing to apply for specialist status is intimidatingly high: they must be able to raise pound;50,000 of unconditional sponsorship from the private sector and demonstrate consistently strong examination results in their specialist subject.
Few inner-city schools can hope to fulfil these requirements easily. And yet research done by the Social Market Foundation shows that specialist schools are disproportionately located in disadvantaged areas. The 10 most deprived local authorities in Britain have more than a third more specialist schools than their 10 most affluent counterparts. By far the greatest concentration of schools with a specialist designation are in deprived urban conurbations: Birmingham has 20 and Liverpool and Manchester six.
Since the election of a Labour Government in 1997, the distribution of specialist schools has favoured poorer areas. When the first round of designated schools was announced in 1994, they were clearly targeted at Middle England. Specialist schools under the Tories were typically located in areas like Reading and Lancaster - affluent, professional suburbs. These are almost exactly halfway up the rank of regional social deprivation.
Since Labour came to office, the typical specialist school has moved down the social rankings and is now in Darlington or Derby - industrial blue-collar cities.
This belies the claim that specialist schools are a sop to the middle classes and a divisive invention. They are being located deliberately in poor areas as part of a raft of education reforms targeting the worst-off.
Department for Education and Skills regulations state that applications for specialist status from schools in deprived constituencies should be preferred where there are a number of competing applications. Schools that currently form part of the Excellence in Cities policy - a programme funding extra provision for able students in inner cities - are also being encouraged to seek specialist status. More than half the latest round of schools announced have Excellence in Cities status.
There is a range of help available to such schools that makes the sponsorship and examination hurdles to specialist status much easier to manage. The Technology Colleges Trust, a Government-sponsored body representing existing specialist schools, matches potential donors to underprivileged schools.
The DFES, meanwhile, is prepared to accept applications from schools with modest examination results providing that they are on an upward trend.
A two-tier education system is one in which the poorest students are left to sink while the affluent are given greater resources and attention. The specialist schools programme does not do this. By targeting funding at schools in poor communities, the Government is smuggling in a redistributive policy under the guise of greater choice.
Labour has made it a fundamental goal of education policy to encourage the middle classes back into the state sector. Until affluent parents start sending their children to the local state school the real two-tier system - education by postcode - will never be overcome.
And so Labour has introduced a scheme that appeals to middle-class parents. The promise that you can send your child to a well-funded school offering high-quality specialist education is one targeted at affluent voters. But in fact it is the students in poorer schools who will benefit from the extra pound;123 per pupil funding and pound;100,000 capital grant that specialist schools receive.
The Government is gambling on the expectation that wealthy parents will be prepared to send their children to schools in underprivileged areas once the schools have received specialist status. Press coverage of the policy is certainly helping, by giving the impression that specialist schools are an electoral sop to middle England.
It is unusual to base an entire policy on spin. But in this case, spin may be the most effective way to achieve two antagonistic goals: encouraging the middle classes to use the state sector while simultaneously raising levels of provision in Britain's worst-off communities.
Gillian Penlington is education researcher for the Social Market Foundation