Is The Success Of Specialist Schools An Illusion?

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The specialist schools programme has failed to deliver widespread improvements in standards, according to a report by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson from the University of Buckingham. So are the improvements just smoke and mirrors?

The study of ‘Specialist Science Schools’ claims that the government’s specialist schools policy is based on an illusion whereby they deprive other schools of the funding they need to improve by creaming off effective schools from poorer performing schools. It is therefore not surprising, says the report, that specialist schools should appear to do better.

The report concentrates on the impact of specialist science schools on physics – an area where the government has tried to increase participation by requiring all science schools to offer GCSE physics. However, while GCSE physics take-up has risen in the past decade, the authors of the new report suggest that teachers consider extra funding to be the main benefit of specialist status and say it has made little difference to grades in the particular subject. In fact, A-level grades have continued to fall.

They claim that it was this extra money from the government (plus £50,000 from the private sector), combined with their intake of pupils, that had the biggest impact on results.

As evidence of this, the report provides statistics showing how school names (the school’s specialism) did not mean very much when it came to performance. For instance, pupils at schools specialising in music were more likely to get A grades in physics A-level than those at science schools.

At language specialist schools, 26.5% of entries in physics were awarded A grades at A-level, while the proportion of physics A grades achieved at science specialist schools was similar to that achieved at schools specialising in maths and computing (24.4%).

Dr Pamela Robinson said of the system: “It seems to have left us with a lot of schools with names that do not mean very much. It is odd having music and languages schools that do better in science than the science schools.”

This presents parents with a nightmare when it comes to making a choice of secondary schooling for their children.

If the labels don’t really mean anything, should they send their children to what they instinctively feel is a good school, or do they make every effort to find one with an appropriate title?

Is a sports school expected to help us field a team for the 2012 Olympics? Are science schools educating our future research scientists?

For a science school to become truly a science school, or a sports school truly a sports school, it would have to be able identify, admit and develop particular talents. But this would mean selection at age 11, defined even more narrowly than under the grammar school system.

The government, meanwhile, has been quick to defend specialist schools, saying they were thriving and raising standards. A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: “Specialist schools are thriving. Specialist status gives a valuable cash boost to schools but more importantly it gives an extra focus and drive that raises standards across the board, not just in the relevant specialism. This can only be a good thing.”

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust echoed the government’s statement, pointing out that science colleges had boosted science teaching and been a catalyst for improving whole schools. Chief executive Elizabeth Reid said: “As even Professor Smithers acknowledges…70% of specialist science colleges provided GCSE physics in 2007, up from 43% in 2003 and science colleges were over five times more likely to offer physics than other schools.

“Specialist schools are fully comprehensive and use their specialism as a catalyst for whole school improvement, ensuring more young people leave school with a good education and with a good set of qualifications.”

Despite such reassurances, should the specialist schools programme be reviewed?

In some cases, where the specialisms chosen bear little relation to the strengths of a particular school, a review would seem be in order, as would a review where the school’s specialist name complicates parental choice - particularly if it is not a centre of excellence.  A review would also be in order to address the claims that the specialist schools scheme is not actually driving up standards and that many weak or failing schools are still part of the programme.

Supporters of the programme could argue that the specialist schools programme has increased exam take-up and results in their chosen areas, whilst also providing extra funding to improve facilities.

The controversy presents an urgent problem for government, and it must find ways of bringing together what is now a diverse collection of schools, into a secondary education system with shape and coherence – just as Professor Smithers concludes in his report.

And whilst we all wait for that to happen, the only answer for parents searching the right school for the siblings is to advise them to search through performance tables or a school’s prospectus for evidence of a good school – based on exam results or ‘value added’ performance, which shows how much its pupils have improved or otherwise in GCSEs compared with what was expected of them when they arrived at age 11.

Key findings of ‘Specialist Science Schools’ by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson:

  • Differences between specialist schools have more to do with intake than subject, so their names do not mean very much
  • In 2007, more pupils in music, languages and maths & computing schools than in science schools obtained an A grade in A-level physics, though fewer did so in technology, engineering, business & enterprise and sports schools.
  • Comprehensives opting for academic specialisms (including science) had intakes with higher prior attainment, lower eligibility for free school meals and fewer special needs than schools opting for practical specialisms.
  • Grammar schools were more likely than comprehensives to opt for academic specialisms, to offer GCSE and A-level physics, and to have higher take-up and achieve better results.
  • The research found that a quarter of the science schools had chosen their specialism on the basis of strength in the subject, but a fifth had done so because they were weak in it and saw specialist status as a lever for improvement.
  • The main benefit of specialist status, irrespective of specialism, was perceived to be extra funding.