Michael Gove has announced changes to the Specialist Schools programme. It seems that schools will no longer need to be designated as a specialist school and that specialism funding will simply be reabsorbed into the overall funding package. Funding for SSAT to support designation will also cease.
While not announcing the abandonment of the principle it is hard to see how ‘specialism’ can remain as a significant feature of the educational landscape. For instance, a headteacher has told me that it is unlikely that the funding to support the ‘family’ of other schools will be sustainable. I would also imagine schools will wish to channel resources towards the less successful subject areas rather than the most successful.
It is true that, in many schools, specialist status has led to really significant improvement in the quality of teaching and learning in the subject. This did raise the bar and provided new exemplars, expectations and models of practice. This did spread to other schools – almost virally. However, expectations that specialist schools would become the hub of significant, locally based, subject networks dedicated to innovate and improve have not often been realised. It may be that specialist schools formed regional networks with other specialist schools. But these seemed to be inward looking in the main.
There have been some very good examples of cross-phase working, especially where time was taken to establish personal partnerships between teachers based upon mutual respect. However, sometimes primary teachers have complained of being patronised and ignored. So ‘specialism’ as a concept has made a difference but may not yet have fulfilled all the potential for system wide improvement.
The announcement that ‘specialism’ is to be absorbed (and probably abandoned) does make it harder to see how subject communities will be supported. How the next generations of champions will be able to develop and share new ideas and practice is uncertain. This is a shame, especially at a time when nationally prescribed models of practice are being abandoned and teachers will be free to develop their own practice. This should not be done in isolation.