The extra cash that goes with specialist status has proved irresistible for many schools, but some heads and governors are taking a principled stand against the scheme. Fran Abrams finds out why.
Once a fortnight, residents at Keene's sheltered housing complex in Chelmsford, Essex, make their way to the school next door to indulge their new hobby: the Internet. At the Silver Servers cybercafe, they can e-mail their grandchildren and get to grips with online shopping.
These superannuated surfers may not know it, but they are playing a bit part in another important activity: the Government's specialist schools programme.
Silver Servers is just one way in which Chelmsford county high school for girls is sharing the windfall it received when it became a technology college.
Before the last election, Labour insisted that it would give the Tory specialist idea left-of-centre respectability. The specialists would share their advantages with surrounding schools and the local community. Government guidance suggests they should spend a third of the money on doing this.
The schools certainly have money to spend. To qualify for specialist status they must raise pound;100,000 in sponsorship. In fact, Chelmsford overshot the target by pound;50,000. Add to that a pound;100,000 government grant plus pound;123,000 per year extra revenue and the total comes to more than pound;600,000 extra over three years. At Chelmsford, a highly selective state grammar, it has already paid for two brand new computer suites, among other things.
Sounds too perfect? Maybe. Certainly the good fortune of the high school and 537 others which are now designated specialist schools has raised hackles in some quarters and raised fears about a "two-tier system".
But the Government's enthusiasm for them is undimmed. It had planned to double the number by 2006, but last month, the Prime Minister went even further: there would be no limit on numbers, he said. A policy which had begun as a Tory wheeze to keep big business happy, had become the main plank of a Labour government's education strategy.
But some fear the scheme will simply help strong schools, such as Chelmsford, to become even stronger while leaving the weak to struggle.
Of course, Monica Curtis, Chelmsford high's head is a supporter. Most of the new specialist schools are in inner-city areas, she points out, and it is hard for good county schools like hers to build on their success.
She says: "My children have special needs - almost all of them are gifted and able. People say that is lovely and nice but it's darned hard work. When you look at what we do with pound;2,500 per year per pupil you can see we're doing a phenomenal job," she says.
But other heads in the area admit to feeling a little envious.
Among them is David Franklin, head of Chelmer Valley high school. His 1,100-pupil school is performing well but its efforts to become a technology college failed because it could not raise the necessary pound;100,000 sponsorship. Now the minimum has been cut to pound;50,000, he may try again.
"Yes, there is a little envy there because the amount of money provided for each child is fantastic. I just wish we could all be given that level of funding," he says.
And Chelmer Valley has not reaped any benefit from Chelmsford high's status.
"In reality I think that very rarely happens," says Mr Franklin. "I think local primary schools get the benefit because the specialist colleges tend to look after their feeder schools. I have to admit I haven't seen a great deal of evidence of it myself."
Chelmsford high does work closely with another local secondary, The Sandon School, but its decision to spread largesse mainly among feeder primary schools is not unusual, according to DFEE-sponsored research.
Researchers from the London School of Economics found that eight out of 10 specialist schools were working on curriculum development with local primaries, but far fewer were fulfilling the Government's aim of working with their competitor secondaries.
Dr Anne West, director of the centre for educational research at the LSE, led the research team. She believes the picture is patchy, with schools co-operating more closely in areas where they do not have to compete fiercely for pupils.
However, she backs the initiative. Her research allayed fears that it would lead to more selection, reporting that just 7 per cent of specialist schools had changed their admissions policies. And, while half the schools in her study said the extra money was the main reason for making the change, there had been other benefits.
Specialists, she says, are "spurring innovation". She suggests Tony Blair is right to expand the scheme.
Her research found that specialist status increased a school's popularity. Average applications per place rose from 1.5 to 1.75. But, as most were already full and had not changed their admissions criteria, it suggested that this did not change the ability profile of pupils.
But not everyone agrees. Tony Edwards, emeritus professor of education at the University of Newcastle, produced a paper in 1998 which argued that American specialist or "magnet" schools did attract more motivated or able students.
Professor Edwards also suggests that specialism can mean less choice, not more. He was chair of governors for five years at the Queen Elizabeth high school in Hexham, Northumberland, which produced good results and saw no reason to change.
"Hexham is a one-school town with a large catchment area," he explains. "Staff could not see why they should highlight one area of the curriculum when parents had only the choice of that school or the private sector."
Others, including Secondary Heads Association general secretary John Dunford, agree. Ideally there should be diversity within schools rather than between them, Mr Dunford says, though he is happy that the Government now seems to want to create a level playing field by letting all schools apply for specialist status.
He also suggests it is unreasonable to ask parents to choose a specialism as children leave primary school. "When your son or daughter is 11, how do you know whether to go for the business or science college? What if he or she suddenly acquires a musical bent two years later?" Ideally, he says, every school should be well enough resourced to cater for the differing needs of all children.
And although the pound;33m announced by the Prime Minister for the programme last month will allow a further 50 schools to join the scheme, there are fears that funding per specialist school will have to be reduced as more apply. That could undermine the case for specialist schools if, as many have suggested, their better academic performance stems from their funding advantage.
There are concerns too over sponsors. One head, who did not want to be named, said she had refused to work with a company that demanded her school buy equipment worth pound;40,000 in return for its sponsorship. Although the DFEE has changed the rules to try to prevent such abuse, some heads believe it still goes on. "I felt my integrity was being eroded," she says. She adds that she believes the system is a "lottery", with good bids turned down in some areas and shaky ones accepted in others.
And what of those schools, like Chelmer Valley, which simply cannot find the sponsorship amid increasing competition? Some heads have rejected the idea of specialisation on the grounds that it is simply unfair to such schools.
Dr Chris Nicholls, head of another Chelmsford secondary, Moulsham School, is among them. His governors have twice discussed applying, but he is against the idea in principle. And he does not believe his school has suffered because of its decision to stay a community comprehensive.
"We chose to stay in the local education authority when the rest of the county's schools went grant-maintained. I was told then that Moulsham would become the sink school. I said we would concentrate on raising standards and that's what we did.
"Now people are telling me if I don't go specialist I will be head of a sink school. I just don't believe it," he says.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SPECIALIST SCHOOLS
1987: At a meeting at the Royal Festival Hall, business leaders tell Margaret Thatcher they will fund 200 colleges for science and technology in inner-city areas.The City Technology Colleges Trust is formed to run the movement, but over the next three years only enough sponsorship is found for 15 colleges.
1988: The Education Reform Act allows business-sponsored schools in the state sector.
1992: The Choice and Diversity White Paper suggests schools should specialise in music, art, drama or sport.
1993: The Technology Colleges Programme is introduced to help grant-maintained and voluntary-aided secondaries specialise in technology, science and maths.
1994: All state schools are allowed to consider specialising. The programme is extended to include languages.
1996: The programme is extended again to cover sports and the arts.
1997: There are just 181 specialist schools. The Labour government relaunches the programme, with a focus on sharing expertise. Schools must raise pound;100,000 sponsorship, and no more than 30 per cent of pupils in an area can be in specialist schools.
July 1999: The sponsorship requirement is cut to pound;50,000.
Sept 2000: The number of specialist schools rises to 538.
February 2001: The Government says 1,500 secondary schools - nearly half the total - will specialise in drama, sport, languages, technology, business or science by 2006.
April 2001: Tony Blair pledges pound;30m for the first business schools and says there will be no limit on the number of specialist schools.