Specialist Schools – what do we know?

A report by

Frances Castle

Senior Research Officer, Institute of Education


Jennifer Evans

Research Associate, Institute of Education

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Executive Summary

This report aims to pull together what we know about one of the key innovations in educational policy of the last few years – specialist schools. It is a review of the research, commentary and informed opinion to give an overview of the development of the policy and its implementation and the impacts it has had on the quality of teaching and learning across secondary schools in England. Currently, in 2005/06, there are 2,380 specialist schools operating (75% of all secondary schools) and they are educating over half of all secondary school pupils.
(* A further 123 schools were added to the programme on 31 January 2006 – 12 sport, 3 languages, 25 arts, 16 business and enterprise, 6 engineering, 12 humanities, 16 maths and computing, 3 music, 13 science, 7 technology and 10 combined specialisms.)

Furthermore, it is intended that every secondary school that is up to standard will be a specialist school by 2008.

The report covers the following aspects of the specialist schools policy:

  • Background – the history of the development of the policy
  • Impacts on equity and accessibility
  • Impacts on teaching and learning
  • Methods for estimating value added by schools
  • Conclusion


The specialist schools programme was launched in 1994, when a small number of grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools began operating as technology colleges. In the following year, all maintained secondary schools in England were given the opportunity to apply for specialist status. By January 2004, more than half of all secondary schools (54%) had gained specialist status and 2006 began with the proportion at 75 % . Currently, specialist status can be obtained in the following curriculum areas: technology; language; arts; sports; business and enterprise; maths and computing; science; engineering; humanities; music; combined subjects and, special educational needs.

Up to 1999, all schools wishing to apply for specialist status were required to raise £100,000 in sponsorship from business, charitable or other private sector sponsors. This has now been reduced to £50,000 and there are funds available to help schools that are finding difficulties in raising sponsorship.

Impacts on equity and accessibility

Concern was expressed that the Specialist Schools Programme would further the progress of a two-tier education system. The principal questions raised were:

  • Will the provision of considerable extra funding for specialist schools increase the disadvantageous position of those that have not achieved specialist status?
  • Does the existence of specialist schools contribute to the creation of a hierarchy, which itself is discriminatory?
  • Do specialist schools discriminate against pupils?

There is evidence to show that that specialist schools have benefited substantially, both from grants and from sponsorship. DFES spending on specialist schools increased from £41 million to £145 million between 1998 and 2003. This means that specialist schools have considerably higher levels of funding than those that do not currently have specialist status. However, there is no direct evidence on whether this has created a hierarchy of schools in a given locality. Given the Government’s commitment to ensure that every eligible school will become a specialist school by 2008, it is unlikely that a hierarchy will be created on this basis, although the possession of specialist status alongside being a foundation or a VA school does seem to provide advantages in terms of hierarchical position.

In terms of access, there is some evidence from research that since 1997, when Labour came to power, secondary schools have become more socially segregated. In terms of selection by ability or aptitude, although under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, there is provision for schools with a specialism to select up to 10% of pupils by aptitude in the relevant specialism, evidence suggests that this is not an option that has been widely taken up.

Impacts on teaching and learning

The current body of evidence about specialist schools is equivocal about their impact. It is clear that the majority of specialist schools are highly effective (four fifths of an Ofsted survey carried out in 2001 were judged to be so) (Ofsted 2001). But whether this is due to their selection practices (overt and covert), or to their being already highly effective in order to obtain specialist status, is not clear. There is no proven causal link between the improved performance of these schools and their specialist status.

A second evaluation carried out by Ofsted and published in 2005 (Ofsted 2005) found that five out of six of the schools visited were now achieving the aims of the programme (compared with four out of five in 2001). Compared to other schools, specialist schools do well against a range of indicators, including leadership and management, quality of teaching and improving standards.

Research funded by the then Technology Colleges Trust in 2002, investigated the factors that underlay the high performance in 20 specialist schools. These were:

  • High quality teaching and learning
  • School ethos and culture
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Leadership and Curriculum improvements
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Resources

Of all of these, the only factor that could be directly attributed to specialist status is the final one – the provision of extra resources. All the other factors could be present in effective schools, no matter what their status.

The success of specialist schools in terms of raising standards in specialist subjects has varied, but generally, there have been significant improvements. Overall, in specialist subjects, the combined average points score for each pupil was higher in technology, language, arts and sports colleges than the average in other maintained schools (Ofsted, 2001). However, in their 2005 report, Ofsted commented that the rate of improvement in pupils’ performance in the specialist subjects was levelling off.

There is evidence that new specialist subjects or courses have been introduced in the vast majority of specialist schools and that specialist subject entries at GCSE have been higher per pupil in each type of specialist school than for all schools, suggesting an extension of the range of opportunities for pupils attending specialist schools.

There has been a keen debate about the best methods for estimating the impact of specialist schools on GCSE results, which is described in some detail later in this report. So currently, there is no consensus on the size of the difference between specialist and non-specialist schools in terms of value-added, although specialist schools on average are estimated to have added 1.4 grades to a student’s GCSE/GNVQ total score compared to non-specialist schools.

However, the evidence from the research is reasonably consistent in finding that pupils at specialist schools do slightly better at GCSE and KS3 than pupils with similar characteristics that we have data for at non-specialist schools, after controlling for differences in school context. The size of this ‘specialist schools effect’ is estimated to be around 1– 2 GCSE grades. The preferred method for estimating value added on statistical grounds is multilevel modelling.


The debate on the efficacy of specialist status as a method for improving standards of teaching and learning in secondary schools in England has been hampered by lack of robust research information about the impacts of the policy, as it has been implemented so far. Much of the evidence provided by Government has been inconclusive or methodologically suspect. There is evidence of improved performance in specialist schools, but it is not clear whether this is due the specialist status per se or the extra funding and drive generated around becoming a specialist school. Despite the reservations expressed by the Education and Skills Committee, after their enquiries into secondary education and diversity, the Government has provided a robust defence of the policy and has signalled its determination to extend specialist status to all schools that qualify.

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