Super salesman or remote controller?
TWENTY YEARS after being established, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust has grown to become a highly influential player in the education system.
Under the indomitable leadership of Sir Cyril Taylor, the trust claims to have overseen a revolution in school standards as it has helped turn controversial government policy into reality.
Its success as an organisation is undeniable. But as the 20th anniversary celebrations continue this month, questions are being raised about the scope of the trust's expanding empire and whether it is being properly held to account.
Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons education committee, will soon be calling in Sir Cyril, renowned for his outspoken pronouncements on school performance, to give evidence about the trust's role.
"Their remit has grown, their staff and budget have grown and it needs to be reminded that it is accountable to Parliament," said Mr Sheerman.
"I think it's time we got a grasp of what they do and their relationship with the Department for Education and Skills. Sometimes the statements they make are what you would expect from ministers."
Established in 1987 as the City Technology Colleges Trust, the organisation, which describes itself as independent and not-for-profit, oversaw the opening of a relatively modest 15 schools in its first six years, far fewer than the 200 that had been predicted.
Less expensive technology colleges were introduced to help make up for the shortfall and specialisms were extended to include language colleges, the first wave of which were announced in 1994. By the time Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 there were 245 specialist schools.
With Labour fully embracing the model, where schools raise an initial Pounds 50,000 in sponsorship, the trust has grown rapidly to include almost 2,700 schools, 350 staff and an annual turnover of almost pound;50 million.
The trust, an umbrella organisation for all specialist schools, now counts 85 per cent of secondaries as members and expects to welcome all schools as specialist or academies in five years. The specialisms have expanded to include sports, business and enterprise, science and art.
Nobody questions that the rise of the trust is largely the work of one man - Sir Cyril. The former toothpaste marketing man and founder of the American Institute of Foreign Study has been at the helm since day one.
As 10 education secretaries of both parties have come and gone, Sir Cyril has remained, persuading each of them that he has the answer to better school performance. Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, likes to make good-natured jokes about Sir Cyril's age (he is 71) but his relentless output shows no sign of slowing.
When Mr Johnson was still running around in short trousers, Sir Cyril was a platoon commander fighting the Mau Mau in the emergency campaign in Kenya.
He has never lost his fighting spirit, and nobody would bet against him retaining the ear of future education secretaries and prime ministers, whatever their political persuasion.
In 2006, specialist schools and academies averaged 60 per cent A*-C grades at GCSE compared with 48 per cent for non-specialist maintained schools.
With English and maths included, the figures were 45 per cent for specialist compared with 34 per cent for non-specialist.
But not all university academics are convinced by the statistics. Professor Stephen Gorard, of York university, said: "We have no evidence that specialist schools are improving school performance. I have never found any evidence that could not be explained by changes in admissions or the way the schools were selected at the beginning."
The trust claim that specialist schools get better results than other comprehensives does not take into account that no failing schools have been made specialist, Professor Gorard said.
Schools receive a significant amount of support from being specialist.
There are financial benefits, a lump sum of pound;100,000 plus an extra Pounds 129 per pupil per year, as well as a support network and an invitation to one of the largest and flashiest education conferences in the UK.
But what difference does being specialist make to the schools?
Joan Barnes, headteacher of the Hackney Free and Parochial CofE school, in east London, a specialist sports college, said gaining the status had helped raise attainment from 18 per cent of pupils gaining five good GCSE results in 2001, the year before they became specialist, to 40 per cent last year.
"People's perception of the school has changed because they now know we have something good to offer," she said. "Of course the funding is important, but the planning you put in to becoming specialist means you can improve quickly. All of our pupils take part in sports leadership programmes now, which has an impact on their self-confidence, attendance and attainment. People believe in themselves because we have the specialist mark."
As the trust has proved itself adept at changing with the education landscape and responding quickly to what government wants, so its influence has grown.
To some, though, its influence has already gone too far. Alan Smithers, director of the centre of education and employment research at Buckingham university, said: "Cyril Taylor is a superb salesman and has been selling this essentially daft idea of specialist schools to secretary of state after secretary of state.
"Remarkably, he persuaded Tony Blair that specialist schools were the key to the choice agenda. It's been disastrous because we have specialist schools that are not really specialist and academies that are set up on a privileged basis."
To John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, there are two specialist schools and academies trusts. "There is the group of officials who spend a lot of time putting together high quality professional development programmes and then there is Cyril Taylor," he said. "I don't believe a lot of headteachers in specialist schools share his enthusiasm for academies."
Mr Bangs believes that given the amount of influence the trust has, it should be subject to greater scrutiny.
A glance at the trust's website reveals its extended support network, which includes annual conferences for all the schools' subject specialisms.
I-Net, the trust's international wing, is building relationships and sharing teaching knowledge with schools across the world.
And the trust also offers numerous training programmes and support networks, including a course for would-be academy principals, one on using new technologies and another on teaching vocational courses.
Some of its courses on leadership are run in conjunction with the National College for School Leadership; others are in competition. Schools can take their pick.
The expansion of the trust is set to continue. It is now promoting Labour's latest educational innovation, the controversial trust schools model, and is being funded by the DfES to raise awareness of the programme.
Sir Cyril had argued that trust status could be the saviour of low performing schools if used to link them up with higher performing specialists. But since Tony Blair doubled the target for the number of academies to 400 schools, he has changed tack and claims that the academy programme alone can sort out the country's underperforming schools.
Either way Sir Cyril remains bullish.: "In five years' time we will have no low attaining schools full stop," he said. "All of them will either become specialist schools or academies."
The reach of Specialist Schools and Academies Trust now extends into the independent sector. Sandbach boys' school, Cheshire, became an arts college in September, entitling it to pound;100,000 capital grant and an extra pound;129 of taxpayers' money per pupil per year, despite its independent status.
But its specialism was hard won and only came after two years of ministerial lobbying by Peter Wiles, the head. He describes Sandbach, founded in 1677, as a hybrid school. It has never been taken into the maintained sector and retains many of the characteristics of the minor public school Sandbach once was. There is an extensive extra-curricular programme.
But his trump card in negotiations was that pupils do not pay fees. The school has just signed a contract with Cheshire county council to act as a local comprehensive to educate boys for the next 40 years.
"We are a unique school," said Mr Wiles. "It is quite a victory for us."