Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Specialist secondary schools - what's the point?

There aren't many "bog-standard" comprehensives left now - mostly they have become "Business and Enterprise colleges", "Sports specialist schools", "Science and Technology specialist schools". I don't know what sort of resources this requires in setting up - but I have to say, from a parent's perspective, I think that these resources are wasted.

Firstly, this is presented as an aspect of consumer choice - and the current government is addicted to the idea that choice is one of the best things that can be offered. However, many - perhaps most - parents don't really have a choice of secondary school at all, despite the flashy labels. People living in the road near us this year weren't offered their first or second choice of secondary school, instead being offered one which is about 9 miles away, and which would take a 45 minute commute. That's 90 minutes of the student's day doing nothing except travelling. How useful is that?! This was because of various local authority political issues, apparently. On appeal, I think all managed to get more appropriate schools. But for these people, getting ANY local school was a more immediate concern than what the particular specialism of that school is.

Secondly, where parents do have a choice, how many of them would specifically look for (say) a "Language Specialist School", rather than the one which either seemed to offer the best overall teaching, or the best perceived pastoral support for their children? I would guess less than 5%. I would much rather my children were at a school that sought to teach a broad, balanced curriculum well than one which focussed on one particular issue. If for no other reason, this is because children below the age of 16 in many cases only have a vague idea of what sort of specialism they are likely to require when they finish school.

The school that my oldest child has gone to is a Business and Enterprise college. The prospectus talks about the fact that all subjects are taught in the school with a business and enterprise focus, and I have little doubt that they get some money back from businesses by tying up with them. To be honest, however, this was a positive discouragement to me. I was much more interested in the fact that (unlike one option) they were small enough that individual achievement of students was visible and (unlike the other option) their results suggested that children were going to be taught well enough that they would be able to achieve what they were capable of, and not held back. The business/enterprise focus seems to me like the cart driving the horse. Business and enterprise are not the highest goal of society, and education shouldn't therefore be received through a business and enterprise filter. Maths, English, Modern Languages, Science, History, Geography, R.E., Citizenship - all of these can be learnt for their own sake, and if people choose to apply what they have known to the world of business and enterprise, that is for them to decide.

So what's the point? Is this just a way of getting businesses to chip extra money into the education system? Or is it just another really trendy political idea that will fade away in the fullness of time, like so many others? Unfortunately, I hope so.