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Specialist Schools

Volume 403: debated on Monday 10 March 2003

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If he will make a statement on the performance of specialist schools. [108241]

On 1 April, the Specialist Schools Trust published its excellent latest analysis by Professor David Jesson of York university. I shall place a copy in the Library of the House of Commons. The document presents an analysis of educational outcomes and value added by specialist schools in recent years; it contains a wealth of data and I commend it to the House. To draw out one particular set of statistics: 54.1 per cent. of pupils in non-selective specialist schools achieve five or more GCSE A* to C grades, compared with 46.7 per cent. of pupils in other non-selective schools. That represents a 3 percentage point improvement in specialist schools over the previous year, compared with a 2 percentage point improvement in other schools.

I welcome the clear benefits that specialist schools provide for pupils, but what about schools in challenging circumstances that would dearly like to become specialist schools, but are struggling both because they have difficulty raising the finance and because they lack the support needed to develop plans that will secure the improvements so evident in specialist schools? What help can such schools receive?

My hon. Friend is right. There are several sources of support. The first is the local education authority: as she knows, the director of education and the authority in Sheffield are giving Sheffield schools substantial support to become specialist schools. The second source is the wide variety of work carried out by the Specialist Schools Trust, which is generally welcomed by schools. One aspect of that support is access to a fund to help schools that are not able to raise the £50,000 by their own efforts. Money is made available to replace that as things move forward. There is substantial help and I want to encourage all schools in the country to seek specialist status.

I happily endorse the support for specialist schools of the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn). Indeed, I congratulate the hon. Lady on being one of two Labour Members who voted with the Opposition against the ten-minute Bill that was introduced by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) to reduce the powers of specialist schools, when 135 Labour and Liberal Democrat Members were on the other side. Why does the Secretary of State think that he has visibly failed to convince his own party of the merits of specialist schools?

I read the debate on the ten-minute Bill with interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) made an articulate speech in moving the Bill, which I am studying carefully. As my hon. Friend said in that debate, he is not opposing specialist schools, but arguing for change in the specialist school regime, which he personally favours. That is a legitimate and positive debate to have, and throughout my party we think that specialist schools play a major role in improving educational standards, and we shall support them strongly.

The Secretary of State should be aware that while we on the Opposition Benches were prepared to vote for specialist schools, for the Government's own policy, the Minister for School Standards abstained, refusing to vote for the Government's policy. Will the right hon. Gentleman now acknowledge that one of the attractions of specialist school status is the extra money that is available? Will he admit that this year's settlement has left schools throughout the country, in Labour areas as well as Conservative ones, angry and disappointed at the cuts and redundancies that they are facing? As he has heard already this morning, this has made head teachers and teachers desperate for any extra money because they have been so badly let down by this Government.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the parliamentary convention is that Ministers do not vote on ten—minute Bills. However, they listen carefully to the debate and take account of what is said.

Specialist schools make a major difference in raising educational standards. That is why we support them, and that is set out clearly in the proposals. That is why many of my colleagues are encouraging schools in their localities to be specialist schools. That is the right way to go. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the principal motive for schools becoming specialist schools is financial. I do not think that that is the case. The principal motive is the ethos of specialism, which we published a few weeks ago.

Regardless of the merits of my Specialist Schools (Selection by Aptitude) Bill, may I tell my right hon. Friend about the achievements of Derby high school in my constituency, which became the first school in the country to become a joint arts and science specialist school? Does he not think that this is an interesting development? Will he encourage more schools to apply for joint specialisms? Would not that be a particularly useful way forward for schools in rural areas?

My hon. Friend's suggestion is entirely correct. As I think he would acknowledge, and as the Select Committee will acknowledge, the proposals that we put forward in "A New Specialist System" encouraged precisely that mix of specialisms that will achieve the sort of quality that my hon. Friend has referred to, both in rural areas and elsewhere. We are developing a creative collaborative approach to specialism, which is the right way forward.

What would the Secretary of State say to a local business man in my constituency who supported specialist status for his local school and then received begging letters from the Specialist Schools Trust and other Government quangos, which he described as Government propaganda paid for by taxpayers? Is it right that people who have worked hard to support their local school should receive begging letters from Government bodies?

That is a facile point. We had an excellent reception, just before Christmas, of specialist schools and sponsors from a wide variety of different schools throughout the country, all of whom were extremely positive about the approach. Many sponsors were looking for additional means by which they could support education in this way. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's constituent school was present at that event, but I expect that it was. However, most sponsors—I cannot speak for the one that he mentions—are positive about the support that they give and often seek to give further support to other schools.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) mentioned, the process of becoming a specialist school is time-consuming and difficult. The seven secondary schools in Stevenage have banded together and put in a joint application. What measures is my right hon. Friend's Department taking to encourage schools in suitable localities to do the same?

We are giving guidance to local education authorities to encourage that kind of thing, but I would add one important point: the process of becoming a specialist school is now entirely about one question—the ability to achieve the quality standard necessary to become a specialist school. We will be rigorous about that, but we removed before Christmas the competitive element between schools which meant that, although a school had done the work that my hon. Friend referred to and passed the quality test, it could fail a test against somebody else. All schools that do the work and pass the quality standard will get specialist status, which is a significant difference both for individual schools and the collaborative framework to which my hon. Friend referred.