Research Reveals Impact of Specialist Schools Programme on GCSE Exam Results overestimated
Research Reveals that the Impact of the Specialist Schools Programme on GCSE Exam Results is Seriously Overestimated
New research from Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) reveals that the impact of the Specialist Schools Programme on GCSE exam results is seriously overestimated by the government and its agencies. The report reveals that data based on one year's exam results are deeply misleading. Rather, more reliable estimates are obtained by investigating the effect of changes in a school’s status on changes in its exam results.
Using data for all secondary schools in England covering the period 1992-2005, Professor Jim Taylor from Lancaster University Management School shows that specialist schools have been far less effective than is claimed.
The Nuffield Foundation supported research project reveals that the substantially higher GCSE exam scores achieved by specialist schools compared to non-specialist schools are largely due to academic ability and family background. They are not due primarily to any benefits resulting from specialising in particular subjects.
The specialist schools programme began in 1994 with the designation of technology colleges. Schools are encouraged to specialise in what they do best so that the benefits of good practice will spread to other subjects across the curriculum. Since the specialist schools programme is the Government’s key policy for improving educational attainment, it is important to ask to what extent the programme is achieving its objectives.
According to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, becoming a specialist school has led directly to an improvement of five points in the percentage of pupils gaining five or more A*-C grades. But this figure is disputed by Professor Taylor, whose results clearly suggest that the specialist schools programme is associated with an improvement in GCSE results of only one percentage point on average over all specialist schools.
In turn, the estimates made by the Specialist Schools Trust are seriously flawed because of the faulty methodology they use. Their estimates are based on data for only one year at a time. More reliable estimates are obtained by investigating the effect of changes in a school’s status on changes in its exam results.
Professor Taylor said: “Only by considering the changes in exam results over several years can reliable estimates of the specialist schools effect be obtained since estimates for any single year are likely to be seriously out of line with reality.”
The Lancaster study shows that the specialist schools programme has been most effective for schools specialising in business and enterprise, science, arts and technology. But the programme is estimated to have had no effect on exam results for schools specialising in languages, maths, sport and engineering.
Although the specialist schools programme has had very little impact on exam results overall, the programme has benefited schools with a high proportion of pupils from poor families.
Professor Taylor added “schools with a high proportion of pupils from better off families appear not to have benefited at all from their specialist status. In other words, pupils from poor families have benefited far more from the specialist schools programme than pupils from more prosperous families.”
The study concludes that educational resources could have been used more efficiently and cost-effectively by targeting schools which have a high proportion of pupils from poor families. In practice, a high percentage of the funding has been channelled into schools that were already performing well in terms of their GCSE exam performance.