HAS Charles Clarke defused the specialist schools' debate?
The Education Secretary's decision not to limit specialist school numbers means that any secondary meeting the criteria can now expect to become one.
And the introduction of new categories of specialism, to include music and humanities from this October, is expected to encourage more schools to apply.
Heads see this as a radical change of direction. "There's a new emphasis on collaboration," said John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "It's a new, more inclusive phase in government policy."
Specialist schools have been dogged by accusations that an unfair funding regime has created a two-tier system. Last summer the then education secretary, Estelle Morris, added fuel to this fire with a vision of a hierarchy of schools, with advanced specialists at the top and failing schools at the bottom.
That hierarchy has now been abandoned, along with the advanced specialists.
Instead, the specialist schools will be expected to fit in with policies that require schools to work together.
Both the Excellence in Cities programme and the new Leadership Incentive Grant expect schools to collaborate, but the Office for Standards in Education has described partnership activities as the "weakest part" of specialist schools' work.
But Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, argues that his schools outline how they will work within the community when bidding for specialist status. "It's a very tough regime," he said. "And every four years they have to re-bid."
Two schools that went through the re-bidding process this year are Small Heath technology college in Birmingham and Thomas Alleynes in Staffordshire. Small Heath head Peter Slough said: "The requirement to work with other schools was one of the most important aspects of trust status."
Children from local primaries are taught by Small Heath's specialist staff.
At Thomas Alleynes, head Peter Mitchell says his staff run a summer school for gifted youngsters in the area. He provides technician support to middle schools and welcomes children from a pupil-referral unit, who come to do design and technology once a week.
In Sheffield, the city plans to use specialist schools' expertise to support subject development in primaries and to offer professional development to secondary teachers.
"Specialist schools will play a key role in the 14-19 programme," said Jonathan Crossley-Holland, Sheffield's director of education.
"Previously the model was the independent school, where the school stood alone. Schools now need to look outside themselves."
But Mr Crossley-Holland still has doubts about the process of deciding whether a specialist has fulfilled its community responsibilities. "If secondaries are going to be providers for a community of schools, that needs to be formalised," he said.
But such reforms will not satisfy the sternest critics of the specialist schools programme. John Bangs, the National Union of Teachers' head of education, points out that some schools will never become specialists - and will therefore miss out on the extra cash (see box). "That still leaves a two-tier system," he said. "The best results come from countries with a single-tier comprehensive system."
Websites: www.specialistschoolstrust.org.uk; www.standards.dfes.gov.ukspecialistschoolsEmail: email@example.com
GROWTH OF SPECIALISTS
ANOTHER 217 specialist schools were designated last month.
From September 2003 there will be 1,209 specialist schools: 472 technology, 171 language, 201 sports, 202 arts, 46 business and enterprise, eight engineering, 38 mathematics and computing,64 science, and seven schools with combined specialisms.
Schools that want to become specialists must raise pound;50,000. After achieving the status they get a one-off capital grant of pound;100,000 and pound;123 per pupil per year for four years.