But heads point to higher funding and creeping selection. Karen Thornton and Nic Barnard report
EXAM results at non-selective specialist colleges have leapt ahead, with 54 per cent of pupils getting five good GCSE passes this summer compared with 44 per cent in other comprehensives.
Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Technology Colleges Trust, called the results outstanding, given the growing number of inner-city specialist schools. The figures include 141 Excellence in City schools, 41 of them designated only last year.
But heads pointed out that the technology, arts, languages and sports schools had benefited from extra resources - typically an extra pound;124,000 a year. The results follow research suggesting specialist schools covertly - and, increasingly, overtly - select their pupils.
Ministers believe specialist schools help raise standards, and want the current 685 to grow to at least 1,500 by 2005. They have added maths and computing, science, engineering, and business and enterprise to the subjects already available.
Excluding specialist grammar schools, provisional results for the 513 schools designated before September 2001 suggest 54 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at A* to C this summer. That compares to 51 per cent last year and an estimated 44 per cent of pupils at non-specialist schools. Around 17 per cent of specialist pupils are entitled to free school meals, a figure close to the national average, says the trust. It also says pupils start with broadly the same key stage 2 results.
However, some schools did not improve. The results of 124 have stayed the same or declined since 1998 - although some already achieve very high pass rates compared to national levels.
The biggest improvement has been registered among sports colleges, where scores for five good passes rose from 31 to 47 per cent and where 21 per cent of pupils get free meals. Language colleges scored the highest results, up from 51 per cent in 1994 to 60 per cent - but only 13 per cent of pupils get free meals.
Among the original 51 schools designated in 1994, results are up by more than half, from 40 per cent to 62 per cent.
Hailing the results, Sir Cyril said: "For the first time in 2001, specialist schools are continuing to outperform other schools by almost a quarter."
Specialist schools typically receive an extra pound;124,000 a year plus pound;50,000 for capital projects - which they are expected to match with sponsorship.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, said:
"This reinforces the link between funding and performance." Mr Dunford called for all secondary schools to be given the same funding.
The trust believes Harris city technology college in Croydon, Surrey, to be the most improved school in England. Its results leapt from 52 per cent in 1998, to 86 per cent this summer.
* ONE in nine specialist schools now selects pupils by aptitude, up from one in 14 four years ago, a survey of 141 education authorities by Sheffield Hallam University has found.
Researchers warned that the proportion was likely to increase further as the number of specialist schools rose. The schools can select up to 10 per cent of their pupils; researchers recommended cutting that figure to 5 per cent, along with better regulation of selection practices.