The specialist schools
programme is a UK
government initiative which encourages secondary schools
to specialise in certain areas of the curriculum to boost achievement. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust
is responsible for the delivery of the programme. Currently there are over 2,000 specialist schools, over two thirds of the secondary schools in England
. The government plans that eventually all schools in England will specialise; Scotland
, and Northern Ireland
control their own education systems, there are no specialist schools in Scotland or Wales. In Northern Ireland specialist school status has been granted to 34 schools by the Department of Education
as of June 2008, part of a three year pilot. .
Gaining specialist school status
Specialist school status requires an application in the form of a four-year development plan with quantified targets related to learning outcomes. The school must also raise £50,000 in private sector sponsorship. 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. While specialist schools are able to select up to 10% of their students
on aptitude in the specialism, few have taken up this option. Specialist schools must still meet the full requirements of the English national curriculum
and 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 fields a school can specialise in are as follows:
A school can also specialise in more than one area; combining specialisms.
A 2003 study of the non-selective specialist schools found that they scored almost 10 percentage points higher in their GCSE
results than their comprehensive
non-specialist competitors. The research, by David Jesson from University of York
, showed all types of specialist schools performing better than non-specialists. Jesson's data appeared to show that the longer a school had been specialist the better its results. Critics attribute this examination success to the extra funding, not to the specialism adopted. Since the amount of additional money provided by specialist status is rather less than the differences in budgets of schools simply by virtue of their different geographical locations, and there is no direct correlation between performance and funding on that basis, it seems likely that while funding might make a difference, it is not the entire story. If the earlier adopters of specialist status are the people with the greatest drive, for example, that alone could explain the difference with the funding being a mechanism for providing the incentive. Given the variables involved the real reasons for improvement are always likely to be obscured by the political perspective.
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
. Until recently software was 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. This changed when Oracle
and then Microsoft
were allowed to sponsor the programme with "in kind" donations. The total sponsorship to date is of the order of £100m. Schools that make a good attempt at achieving their targets normally have their grants renewed after the 4 year development plan period with no further need to raise sponsorship. Schools that do particularly well are invited to apply for a new specialism to give a new line of attack for raising standards.
Business partnership and cooperation is managed by the SSAT Development team (firstname.lastname@example.org) Many companies have developed their Corporate and Social Responsibility programmes by working with the SSAT Africa Project.
It has always been an important objective of specialist schools, to work with the most innovative schools across the world. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust has links with schools and organisations in all continents. Since 2003 it has worked with education groups in South Africa.It has worked effectively with Khanya
in the Western Cape to improve teaching and learning through technology in township schools. Many UK schools now partner with African schools through the SSAT. For more information contact email@example.com
The specialist schools programme has been widely criticised. 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. This is becoming untenable as all schools achieve specialist status and with the wide variation in funding of similar schools in different parts of the country for reasons unconnected with specialist status. Academics have criticised the programme on the same grounds and because there does not appear to be any evidence to demonstrate that it is the specialism, as opposed to the additional funding, that drives the success of the schools. Left wing critics argue that the specialist schools represent a drift away from the comprehensive 'ideal'. The main criticism that does hold up among the political noise is scepticism about student and parental choice. If a school is unpopular, there is little likelihood that those in the surrounding area will have the space and flexibility to admit many individual students based simply on their choice of curriculum.