What's the benefit of specialist status?

6th February 2004 at 00:00
My four-year-old daughter wants to be an actor. Well, to be honest, she wants to be a superhero so long as she can still marry Thomas, but that's beside the point. If you sit her down and ask her what she would like to do in life she talks about the stage. This isn't just a whim - she's been transfixed by drama for more than half her short life.

What do I want? Well, my ambitions for her are limited to sending her, eventually, to the local comprehensive in the small town where we live.

This is not an easy option because there is pressure - from her friends as well as ours - to send her to the local private school. But we think the "comp" will give her the kind of education we want for her.

In return for my loyalty to the non-selective state school system I ask very little of the Government. But I do not expect to discover that the said "comp" has recently won specialist status as a business and enterprise college. I am, presumably, meant to dance around at the mere thought of this.

Actually, it makes me reach for my gun. Given that my daughter, like her favourite cuddly toy, is unlikely to change her spots, she is unlikely to cartwheel to the school gates when she is 11. The nearest arts specialist school is 18 miles away, and while her voice projection is good, there are limits.

In a former life I was able, occasionally, to ask Charles Clarke about my daughter - although I had to dress the question up a bit in generalities.

I always got the same answer: that specialist schools lift standards across the curriculum. The specialism, I was told, was like a train engine, pulling the carriages along, with my daughter presumably in the goods van.

There are several problems with this answer. The first is that awful Blairite buzz word - ethos. Specialism certainly gives schools an ethos, and I can't help but think a business and enterprise school's ethos will stem from business and enterprise. If ethos means anything it will infuse the whole school.

The second problem is choice. New Labour is always saying it wants to give parents a choice. I don't want a choice - I want to send my daughter to a decent local state school. Second, I don't have a choice - the nearest state alternatives are several miles away in different towns. This choice thing is all about living in London - and a few other large cities - unless we want to start bussing kids around.

Yes, I know specialist schools "work" in that standards do rise. But I have always doubted this is due to the specialist subject, believing it is more likely due to the requirements of the bidding process, which makes heads match funding to educational outcomes. It is this thought pattern which makes a difference.

The specialist subjects that work best in the schools I have visited are what I would call "generic", such as technology, language or sport. These can enhance all subjects, without precluding any. What seems wrong to me is this pursuit of narrower specialisms - like the first humanities and music colleges announced last week - which seem to restrict choice in the "one-comp town".

The Government knows there is a problem because it has dabbled with the idea of letting some schools have an additional specialism related to rural issues. Terrific idea: Tuesday morning it's double turnips then? What a lot of people wanted to see was a new specialism of "community". Or how about "comprehensive" ?

When you get a lot of headteachers in the bar, they admit they applied for specialist status to get the money. For these schools, specialist is a sub-brand - a tag-line to their own, strong, local reputation. It seems to me that outside the cities this is the way forward.

Isn't it time to award the extra cash to schools that know what they are doing, and can prove it? If they need an ethos, let's make it the pursuit of excellence. And can we do this quickly? One day my daughter will be able to read the noticeboard outside the "comp", which is right next to her designated primary school, and she's not going to like it one bit.

Jim Kelly was education correspondent of the Financial Times. His novel, The Fire Baby, is published later this month

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