Spread the money, or the magic

21st November 2003 at 00:00
The atomic physicist Nils Bohr is said to have kept a "lucky" horseshoe in his laboratory. Surely, colleagues asked, he did not believe in such superstition? "I am told it helps whether you believe in it or not," he replied.

Specialist schools status evokes a similar attitude for some. But the fact that a large number of them underachieve (Analysis page 19) shows there is no magic. It also demonstrates that the extra money isn't the simple answer either. The underperformers get the same cash boost as those doing better than expected.

The majority of specialist schools overachieve. But is this the result of specialisation - or one of the conditions for granting specialist status?

Specialist schools are not the grammar schools in disguise some opponents wish to paint them as. But while generally they are not selective schools they certainly are selected for the programme.

Initially only grant-maintained schools were eligible. Even now only those able to mount a cogent bid and to demonstrate high or rising standards are admitted. That specialist schools do better on average is hardly surprising therefore.

This is rewarding success, not meeting need. But is it pernicious? Few getting the money argue that subject specialisation as such improves overall results. But what can is an acceptance of the need for rigorous analysis of pupil scores against fair expectations and of responsibility for raising pupil achievement whatever the odds. That ethos is what the money is meant to encourage.

One of the achievements of this growing network of can-do schools has been to drive forward a practical value-added approach. It is a tribute to the Specialist Schools Trust that we know how many of its schools underachieve.

The majority of comprehensives will soon be specialist - all could be by 2006. The question now is can collaboration and fairer comparisons displace competition based on raw results? Specialist schools enjoy preferential funding. They should lose it unless they help neighbours to qualify - and to achieve more for all pupils.

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