Thursday, 22 January 2009

Specialist Schools

News reports of research don't always represent it as faithfully as they might. Just a moment ago I was looking at the BBC rss feed on education and came across the following headline 'Specialist schools' value queried'. I clicked through to the full article that explained;
'The success of England's specialist schools is an illusion, with the extra money they receive and intake being the crucial factors, according to a report. A University of Buckingham report said the system had led to schools with names that "did not mean very much". It said 2007 research suggested pupils at schools specialising in music were more likely to get A grades in physics A-level than those at science schools. ' 'The authors of the latest study say specialist schools appear to do better because poorer performing schools were not granted specialist status. Professor Alan Smithers said: "All the SSAT's (Specialist Schools and Academies Trust) comparisons amount to is that if you take effective schools and give them extra money, they do better than less effective schools without extra money."
The study showed, he said, that the extra money pumped into specialist schools, as well as their intake of pupils, had the biggest impact on results.'
Goodness I thought this is pretty damning so I went to the University Of Buckingham's website and downloaded the report. That the title of the report is 'SPECIALIST SCIENCE SCHOOLS' is quite surprising. The authors are chiefly interested in the decline in numbers of young people choosing A Level Physics.
'Since 1990, physics entries, based on the annual returns of what is now the Joint Council for Qualifications, went down from 45,300 to 28,100 (38.0 per cent decrease), while total entries went up from 684,100 to 827,700 (21.0 per cent increase).' 'In this report we investigate what has prompted schools to choose particular specialisms and what contribution they are making in their nominated subjects. In particular, it has as its core questions: (1) are science schools increasing participation in physics at GCSE and A-level; and (2) are they improving performance in physics at GCSE and A-level?'
Given these objectives it is hard to understand how the headlines from the BBC came out of the research. The report itself isn't a very impressive piece of work. For example the attention grabbing comparison of Music and Science Specialist Schools looks unconvincing when there are only 12 Music Specialist Schools being compared with 159 Science.

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