Specialist schools programme
The specialist schools programme was a UK government initiative which encouraged secondary schools in England to specialise in certain areas of the curriculum to boost achievement. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust was responsible for the delivery of the programme. At the end of the status there were nearly 3,000 specialist schools, or 88% of the state-funded secondary schools in England. When the new Coalition government took power in May 2010 the scheme was ended and funding was absorbed into general school budgets.
The Education Reform Act 1988 introduced a new compulsory subject of Technology, but there were insufficient funds to equip all schools to teach the subject. A first attempt at developing centres of excellence, the City Technology College programme between 1988 and 1993, had produced only 15 schools. In 1994, the Conservative government, at the urging of Sir Cyril Taylor, designated 35 grant-maintained and voluntary aided schools as Technology Colleges. The schools were required to arrange private sponsorship of £100,000, and would then receive a matching government capital grant and increased recurrent funding. The following year the programme was opened to all maintained schools, and specialism in Languages was added. Specialisms in Arts and Sport were added in 1996.
As specialism implied diversity of schools, it was opposed by many supporters of comprehensive schools, including many in the Labour Party. Nevertheless, in 1997 the new Labour government, also encouraged by Sir Cyril Taylor, adopted the embryonic programme, and the number of specialist schools continued to grow. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 made it possible for specialist schools to select up to 10% of their intake on aptitude in the existing specialisms in sport, the arts, modern languages and technology, though new selection for aptitude in technology was prohibited in 2008. However few have taken up this option.
The 2001 white paper Schools Achieving Success envisaged expansion of the programme to 50% of secondary schools by 2005, and introduced new specialisms in Business and Enterprise, Engineering, Mathematics and Computing and Science. The emphasis was shifting from centres of excellence to a means of driving up standards in most schools. The required amount of private sponsorship was halved, and could be made up of goods and services in lieu of cash. Software donations had been ineligible due to the difficulty in evaluating the true value of something that has no manufacturing cost and can simply be given away as a form of collateral, but this changed when Oracle and then Microsoft were allowed to sponsor the programme with "in kind" donations. In 2002 the government introduced the Partnership Fund, funded at £3 million per annum, to make up the shortfall for schools that were unable to raise the required £50,000 of private sponsorship. Specialisms in Humanities and Music were added in 2004. By 2008 approximately 90% of maintained secondary schools had become specialist schools.
Extension of the specialist programme to primary schools is being trialled at 34 schools in England, starting in 2007. The specialisms involved in the pilot are Arts, Music, Languages, Science and Physical Education/Sport. A specialist schools programme has been trialled by the Department of Education of Northern Ireland from 2006, with 44 schools being awarded the status by September 2009.
Gaining specialist school status
To apply for specialist school status, a school must demonstrate reasonable standards of achievement, and produce a four-year development plan with quantified targets related to learning outcomes. The school must also raise £50,000 in private sector sponsorship. Private sector sponsorship includes charitable trusts, internal fund raising and donations from private companies. In some cases donations can be made in cash from entities in the private sector such as Arcadia and HSBC, but may also be donations "in kind" of goods or services. The total sponsorship to date is of the order of £100m.
- Arts (can be Media, Performing Arts, Visual Arts, or combination of these)
- Business & Enterprise
- Mathematics & Computing
Specialist schools must still meet the full requirements of the English national curriculum, so the specialism is seen as adding value to the existing statutory provision rather than being a radical departure from it. The important aspect in the eyes of the government is the focus that the specialism provides for providing leadership in the quest for whole school improvement.
The reward for achieving specialist status is a government grant of £100,000 to go with the £50,000 in sponsorship for a capital project related to the specialism and an extra £129 per pupil per year for four years to support the development plan. This is normally targeted on additional staffing and professional development, though up to 30% may be spent on equipment.
Schools that make a good attempt at achieving their targets over the 4 year development plan period normally have their grants renewed at 3-year intervals with no further need to raise sponsorship. However since 2008, the government has sought to encourage long-term relationships with business partners by offering a matching grant to redesignating specialist schools that are able to raise a further £25,000 in private sponsorship.
High Performing Specialist Status
Schools that demonstrate that they are achieving significantly higher results than other schools may be invited to apply to be designated as High Performing Specialist Schools. This typically allows the school to apply for a further specialism, which brings with it additional funding so that the school can develop that further specialism. By 2009 some 900 schools (30% of specialist schools) had achieved this status.
David Jesson of the University of York has published a series of annual studies of the results of the specialist schools program, on behalf of the SSAT. These studies report that non-selective specialist schools scored achieve significantly higher results at GCSE results than non-specialist comprehensive schools, that they achieve higher added value when prior achievement is taken into account, and that the gains increase with the length of time the school has been specialist. Jesson's statistical methodology has been criticised, and others have pointed out that early specialist schools were chosen for the programme because they were already successful. Other studies have found that specialist schools perform slightly better at GCSE, particularly benefitting more able pupils and narrowing the gap between boys and girls. The most recent studies attribute this increase to the additional funding, and report that the effect is diminishing as a greater proportion of schools become specialist.
Specialist schools and academies have been promoted, notably by Estelle Morris (Education Secretary 2001–2002), as part of a drive to improve standards by increasing diversity in secondary schools. Left wing commentators have criticised this move away from the comprehensive ideal. The two biggest UK teaching unions have opposed the programme because they say that it creates a two-tier education system, made up of specialist schools with extra funding and non-specialist schools which cannot benefit from any extra money.
There is also evidence that specialist schools take fewer children from poorer families than non-specialist schools. One possible cause is that it may be easier for middle-class parents to raise the necessary sponsorship.
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