What is the point of a specialist future?

28th May 2004 at 01:00
I'm at that stage as a parent when it is time to take stock. My elder daughter leaves school this summer and my younger daughter, at 14, has just completed the final hurdle of national curriculum tests. I have been happy with their various schools, primary and secondary.

Has this been a triumph of parental choice? Did we get those school choices right? Both daughters attend specialist schools. One specialises in maths and computing, the other in languages.

Good choices, you might think. The research, although not definitive, suggests specialist schools are improving faster than other "bog standard" schools.

Specialist status has certainly brought prestige and more money. But when my daughters started out, neither of their schools had specialist status. I could not have known they would become specialist, nor which specialism they would opt for.

Would I have wanted a specialist computing school for my elder daughter whose interests do not lie that way? Does my younger daughter show greater aptitude for French and Spanish than for art and history?

Specialist schools, we are told, are the future. Already two-thirds of the secondaries in England have achieved or applied for specialist status. In the last Budget, Chancellor Gordon Brown found the money to fund the remaining one-third.

Some fears about them have proved unfounded. Only 6 per cent select pupils by aptitude or ability. But have prospective parents had any say in the specialism? And what, if any, planning has gone into ensuring we have the right balance of different specialisms across the country?

Specialist schools do not appear to have achieved greater parental choice.

Most remain neighbourhood comprehensives so admissions depend entirely on where you live, not on parental choice or children's aptitude.

This does not make them a failure. They were always more about raising standards than increasing parental choice. The process of becoming a specialist school - engaging the community, raising sponsorship, thinking about vision, direction and ethos - has indeed often proved positive.

These benefits do not always continue. Last week's TES revealed that one in 10 of the first generation of specialist schools has lost its status for failing to meet targets. Generally speaking, though, we face a specialist future. More than 90 per cent of schools will be specialist by 2006. Do heads and governors really have a choice to resist this momentum?

The choice of specialism is usually based on an amalgam of the school's existing strengths, the existence of neighbouring specialist schools, and whatever is attractive to sponsors. But if you live in a rural area where there is only one school to choose from, what are the benefits of a specialist school?

Even with the new "rural" designation, how can the specialism meet the needs of all local pupils? The usual response to this is to say that specialist schools still offer the full national curriculum. This is true, but surely a specialist school, particularly in an area of teacher shortages, will attract the best staff and facilities into its own specialist subject areas - not into other parts of the school.

It seems likely that a growing proportion of students will then opt for those subjects which have become the school's strength. Subjects not at the heart of the school's ethos may wither.

If we are failing to produce enough young scientists and linguists, then specialist colleges may tackle this. But when you tinker with one area of the system you can get consequences in another. As yet, no research has been done into the effect of specialist status on pupils' subject options and future career choices.

Within a few years we will have a secondary education system with virtually no generalist schools. Other European countries with highly diversified systems still retain schools offering a general secondary education.

The current spread of specialism is far from even. There are 258 sports colleges and only one for music - 526 specialise in technology and 107 in business and enterprise, but a miserly four specialise in humanities.

It seems secondary school is quietly turning into a pre-vocational programme. Will we soon have a shortage of students taking history and geography? And how can we be sure that each specialist school is in the right place for each specialist child?

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent.

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