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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
The government is planning a huge increase in the number of schools which get extra funding to specialise in particular subjects.
The plan is controversial, with many parents concerned that the apparent increase in choice is creating a two-tier system of secondary education and further complicating the already confusing admissions process.
To achieve specialist status, schools must raise £50,000 in sponsorship, prepare four-year plans with targets in teaching and learning in the specialist subject area, and involve other schools and the wider community.
In return, they get a £100,000 capital grant and an extra £123 per pupil per year.
They have to re-apply at the end of the initial term. They can select up to 10% of their pupils by "aptitude" for the specialist subject - although so far few have done.
At present, almost 700 specialists have been designated. The government now aims to create "at least" 1,500 - almost half of all England's state secondary schools - by 2005, a year earlier than originally suggested.
And ultimately there is no limit - all could specialise.
The first specialists were in arts, languages, technology or sport.
The government has confirmed new categories of engineering, science, business and enterprise, and added another - maths and computing - plus the idea of schools combining specialisms or working in partnership with other schools.
Its White Paper, published on Wednesday, also proposes a new "working towards" status, for schools not yet fully meeting the criteria, which will then be supported to become specialists.
There will also be "advanced specialist schools", intended to develop a role in training teachers.
"The diverse system we want to build will be one where schools differ markedly from each other in the particular contribution they choose to make but where all are equally excellent in giving their students a broad curriculum and the opportunity to achieve high standards," it says.
"Far from concentrating success in a few schools, diversity is about motivating individual schools, spreading excellence, sharing success and working collaboratively. This is at the heart of specialist schools."
The problems are two-fold.
What happens in a rural area if the only school for miles around decides to specialise in a subject in which their child has no aptitude or interest?
The head of The Kings of Wessex in the Somerset village of Cheddar, Chris Richardson, has been anxious to reassure parents on that point, in achieving technology college status.
Extra money for information technology would benefit all subjects in the school.
"We intend to keep our strength in the arts," he said.
"We see this as a way of building excellence. It isn't a way of narrowing the focus of the school and we are very conscious about that."
Secondly, in an area with several secondary schools, if one becomes a specialist - attracting more money and pupils - what happens to the others?
'It's a lottery'
In one London borough a parents' action group is campaigning for a new local comprehensive.
Parent Louise Irvine said: "Our parents in North Lewisham find we are surrounded by selective schools and we are too far away from the comprehensives.
"Parents have found that it's actually a lottery - there's no choice at all.
"The result has been that 50% of parents haven't got their child into a place of their preference.
"They've said it has been the most stressful thing they have gone through, it's been hell for their child - it is anguishing and unfair."
'Children have been damaged'
She says the government's "greater diversity" will only make things more unfair.
"Wherever there is selection, there is rejection. Many children have been damaged.
"It will increase the ability of schools to choose pupils and decrease the options for parents.
"We don't want that. We think there should be local, comprehensive schools that children can go to with their school friends, which they can walk to, which reflect the community in which they live.
"How can children aged 10 and 11 decide what they want to specialise in? It's ridiculous."
Union reaction mixed
The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, said the opportunity for all secondary schools to become specialist, training or beacon schools would go a long way to kill the "two-tier system argument".
"Reports of the death of the comprehensive system have been exaggerated," he said.
But the NASUWT teachers' union said all schools should be operating on a level playing field and it was "deeply concerned with the complicated proposals" on the varying degrees of specialist status.
"It is hard to reconcile more diverse specialist schools with previous promises not to extend selection," it said.
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