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Specialist Schools

Volume 627: debated on Wednesday 31 October 2001

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2.50 p.m.

Whether they are satisfied with their progress with specialist schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, yes. The first main finding from Ofsted's survey, Specialist Schools: An evaluation of progress, is that most specialist schools covered in its survey are achieving the aims of the programme, and that designation has been a catalyst for innovation which has helped to sustain or accelerate the momentum of school improvement. Analysis shows that specialist schools continue to improve GCSE performance at a faster rate than other maintained schools and, achieve good value-added results.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but I fear that it is a little optimistic. How will the Government ensure that sufficient specialist teachers—the core of the system—will be available? Will there not be an inordinate, even unacceptable, amount of travelling for the children involved because of the distance, in many cases, of the specialist schools from their homes? Does not my noble friend agree that, in spite of the many denials by the Government, there will be a two-tier system of schools simply because of the very large amount of grant being paid to the specialist schools and not to the non-specialist schools? Are we seeing the end of comprehensive schools?

My Lords, we are not seeing the end of comprehensive schools. As regards teachers, we are keeping a very careful watch to ensure that specialist school status is granted to schools which are able to ensure they have the teaching available for their specialism. As I have said in the House many times, we are concerned that in some subjects we have shortages. We are looking to make sure that we deal with those effectively.

As regards travelling for children, it is important to remember that specialist school status will be available to schools but on the condition that they work closely with other schools, including primary schools and other secondary schools. As technology grows within schools, we envisage that there will be many opportunities for children to take advantage of specialist schools by using that technology. We also know that in rural communities secondary schools are looking to work closely together and collaborate to ensure that they cover a range of specialisms between them.

It would be true to say that there was a two-tier system only if we were somehow preventing schools participating. It is open to all schools to become specialist schools if they wish. This is part of a raft of measures to help schools to improve. We have established a system of working towards specialist status in order to ensure that schools can participate fully.

My Lords, in view of the fact that specialist schools are designed to deal with pupils with certain specialist abilities, what percentage of such schools are using the right to admit 10 per cent of their pupils on that basis?

My Lords, the answer is 7 per cent. The figures were looked at when we had about 470 such schools. We shall continue with our evaluation of progress. The reality is that most schools have not found the need for designation. Selection is by aptitude, not by ability. The most pertinent examples are sports colleges and performing arts colleges. One can see how they might wish to use the provision.

My Lords, if the Minister is right and if specialist status is such a catalyst for improvement, given that last year there was an under-spend by the Minister's department of £1.4 billion and the cost of raising all schools to specialist status would be £1.13 billion, why do not the Government raise all secondary schools to specialist status?

My Lords, as I thought I had made clear, it is possible for every school wishing to do so to become a specialist school. Designation as such may not be appropriate for some schools and may not be the route they wish to take. We believe in having a diverse education system. It is important to recognise that there is a process involved. That is an important part of the catalyst in terms of improvement and innovation in schools.

My Lords, I think it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

My Lords, apart from the need to raise £50,000 in backing, are the conditions for admission to specialist status firmly based upon a school's potential in the relevant specialism?

My Lords, we are keen to ensure that schools are not debarred from specialist status because of the requirement to raise £50,000. We are examining the position carefully to ensure that that does not happen, and we are talking to those who could assist. It is important for schools wishing to take on a specialism to be able to demonstrate that they have the right number of appropriate staff and the other means to do so.

My Lords, I should like to express my strong support for the Minister's remarks in favour of specialist schools. I hope that she will continue to resist the voices saying that a two-tier system will be created. As she said, any school can apply, and specialist schools in the state sector have shown the greatest improvement in GCSE and A-level results across the whole sector of education. I applaud the Minister's support for such schools, although her party in the old—

My Lords, I am sorry. Perhaps I may ask the Minister—to agree with me! Will she continue her support for specialist schools and ensure that they expand beyond 1,000? In the past her party opposed such schools. I am glad that it now embraces them.

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's support—although I am not sure that it will do me as much good as he might think. It is important to ensure a greater understanding of what specialist schools are about. In describing them, we must be careful to make clear the opportunity for all schools to participate. This is about ensuring success across the education system—and it is about all the values that I hold dear.

My Lords, will the Minister quantify the injection of private moneys into specialist schools?

My Lords, in order to establish its specialist status, a school is required to raise £50,000 in financial support. I am not sure that I can answer beyond that available figure. We are seeking to ensure that schools are not debarred because they find that difficult within their local community.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that if the Government achieve their objective—namely, for half of all schools to achieve specialist status by 2005—they will only have created another half consisting of "bog standard" secondary moderns, particularly in deprived areas, where achieving £50,000 worth of sponsorship from local businesses is almost impossible?

My Lords, I wondered when the words "bog standard" would appear on my agenda. As I have said, we are clear that we do not want the £50,000 figure to debar schools from participating. We shall look closely at ways of supporting them. This is one of a range of ways in which schools can be involved. There are also "beacon" schools and other kinds of schools. If a school decides that this is the route it wishes to take, it does not make any other school second-best. It is simply one opportunity within a raft of measures to make sure that in every community we have the best possible education for every child.