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You can all be special, Blair tells schools

PM hails success of specialists as new fund helps others to bid, even if they can't raise pound;50,000 sponsorship. Warwick Mansell and Karen Thornton report

All schools will be able to become specialist and those which fail to raise the pound;50,000 sponsorship required will have access to a hardship fund, Education Secretary Charles Clarke announced this week.

The previous goal was for 2,000 schools to be specialist by 2006. To extend the scheme the Governmnet has lifted the cap of pound;150 million funding. All schools which meet the criteria will receive pound;100,000 for capital projects and pound;123 per pupil.

A fund jointly run by the Department for Education and Skills and the Technology Colleges Trust will help schools that are struggling to raise the pound;50,000 sponsorship they need to apply for specialist status, though they must prove they have made every effort to find the cash. The trust has already raised pound;150 million from businesses in the past year and the DfES will provide pound;3m for 20034 and pound;2m the following year.

The move is the first step in a shake-up of the secondary system. Education Secretary Charles Clarke believes there are too many types of schools and wants a simpler structure. Full plans will be announced in the new year but specialist status will be at the heart of the strategy to raise standards. A million pupils already attend specialist schools.

Tony Blair, speaking in Birmingham at the TCT's 10th annual conference, said the expansion would not mean a lowering of quality. He said a new category of "advanced" specialist status would enable "our best specialist schools to take on a bigger role" in teacher training, curriculum development, and helping other schools and the community. The Prime Minister rejected charges that the programme was elitist and unfair. He said: "Specialist schools are not a means of shutting deprived children out of excellence, but a means of giving them access to it."

Simply giving specialist status to everyone straight away "would have undermined the programme as an instrument of reform", he said. New and existing members of the specialist club will continue to be subject to quality tests.

Specialists, by their success, had proved fears of a "two-tier" system groundless, he said. The weekend press had reported a rift between the Prime Minister and Chancellor, with Gordon Brown believing foundation hospitals and specialist schools to be divisive.

Mr Blair said, while specialists had a similar intake to non-specialists at 11, both in terms of social class and ability, 54 per cent of pupils got five Cs at GCSE or better versus 46 per cent at other schools.

Schools minister David Miliband said that specialists needed to build better links with local communities and other schools, particularly those in challenging circumstances. "We all have a challenge to strengthen the community aspect of the specialist school grant.

"Ofsted have found this wanting; sharing of facilities is a vital part of the programme," he said. He also admitted that the specialist programme was not a total success: some were performing poorly and should be twinned with their successful peers, he said.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, said the requirement to raise pound;50,000 should be dropped and the bidding process made less bureaucratic. However, the National Association if Head Teachers wants to retain minimum entry standards to the programme. David Hart, NAHT general secretary is on the board of the TCT.

Charles Clarke told The TES that reducing the pound;50,000 sponsorship was not an option. He said: "The sponsorship captures the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation integral to the programme." He said expansion of the scheme was essential. "If your local school is a specialist it is more likely to be a good one."

However, Mike Raleigh, manager of Ofsted's secondary division, this week told MPs on the education select committee that the trend of improvement for the first 521 specialist schools since 1997 had been "broadly similar" to the national picture. Mr Raleigh said schools tended to get specialist status because they were starting to improve, rather than improving because of their status. He also said a fifth of schools had gone specialist purely to get the extra cash.

But inspectors found several positive features of specialism: schools were better at using their work in their specialist subject to support other subjects, and at working with primaries and the community.

Leader, 20


Number of specialist schools in England by type:

Technology colleges: 443

Arts colleges: 173

Sports colleges: 161

Language colleges: 157

Science colleges: 24

Business and enterprise colleges: 18

Maths and computing colleges: 12

Engineering colleges: 4

Total number of specialist schools: 992

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