There are now about 2,650 specialist schools and academies out of 3,100 mainstream maintained schools eligible to bid for specialist status. This is around 85 per cent of all secondary schools. However, of the remaining 450 non-specialist schools, 272 are low-performing, averaging 25 per cent or less five-plus A*-C grades at GCSE, including maths and English. These schools may find it difficult to submit a successful specialist bid.
How can we help these under-performers, which educate a total of 250,000 children, obtain specialist school status and thus avoid a two-tier system of secondary education?
Some will become academies. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust strongly recommends that the remaining underperformers be formally linked in a partnership with a high-performing specialist school using the new proposed trust framework. The aim would be to help the underperformers achieve specialist status and raise its standards.
At a recent dinner seminar of 150 outstanding headteachers of high-performing specialist schools, virtually every one of them expressed support for the idea of partnering an underperforming school using the new trust structure.
An inspiring example of the value of this type of partnership is the linking of the successful and popular Haberdashers' Aske's CTC in Bromley, south London, with the previously underperforming Malory school. Both are now academies supervised by a single non-profit charitable trust set up by the Haberdasher's Livery Company.
In less than a year Malory, now called the Haberdashers' Aske's Knights academy, has been transformed from a unpopular school with poor attendance and standards - only 9 per cent achieved five A-C grades at GCSE in 2005 - to a school which is oversubscribed and has an excellent ethos of achievement.
How has this been done? First, outstanding leadership. Elizabeth Sidwell, principal of the Haberdashers Aske's Hatcham college CTC, was appointed chief executive of the schools. Her former deputy, Yvonne MacCallum, was appointed head of the new Knights academy and took up post one year before the change took place. Paul Durgan of the Hatcham CTC was appointed chief financial officer of the schools. This formidable management team has given inspiring leadership. The previous operating deficit has been eliminated.
New staff have been engaged and existing staff re-energised.
Second, change in ethos. Every child at Knights academy wears the navy Haberdashers' blazer with white shirt and tie. Several boys told me how proud they were to be Haberdashers' pupils. This pride in belonging to a good school is an interesting example of using an established highly respected "brand" to raise standards in a once failing school.
There is zero tolerance of poor behaviour. There is no litter. There is order and calm in the corridors, and an enthusiasm to learn. This has been achieved with an exclusion of only two children. Pupils belong to houses, and the rules are clear. Counselling is available to pupils with special needs, such as looked-after children and those at risk.
The new leadership has made it "cool" to study and work hard. Expectations have been raised for all pupils. There is a large proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities andor socially disadvantaged families, and single parents. Relations between pupils are excellent; each child has a tutor who reviews progress and sets targets for achievement.
As with the Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham school, all teaching, except in the sixth form, is in single-sex classes. Girls and boys seem to prefer this. I watched a class of boys studying Romeo and Juliet during which they acted out the fight scene between the Montagues and the Capulets. The boys attacked each other with enthusiasm, but also indicated an interest in reading the play.
The school opens at 7.30am when breakfast is served, and closes at 6pm.
There is a wide variety of after-school activities, especially sport, which is popular with boys and girls.
Many pupils told me that they came from single-parent families with working mothers and nowhere to go in afternoons before she returned from work. By remaining open until 6pm, the school provides a safe haven and exciting activities.
The previous school had poor attendance, with only two-thirds of the children present on any one day. Use of computer-assisted attendance registration and a focus on reducing truancy has raised attendance to 90 per cent.
Finally, the school tries to attract and retain outstanding teachers, including several Teach First outstanding recent graduates. The enthusiasm of these teachers is infectious. There are numerous other examples of how this partnership can raise standards. For example, Sir Dexter Hutt, head of Ninestiles in Birmingham, has successfully partnered two former underperforming schools, Waverley and International, using a hard-edged federation.
All Hackney schools are now working under a single trust. All the original 15 city technology colleges will partner an underperforming school as part of their conversion to academy status.
Sir Cyril Taylor is chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust