Press Release: Success of Specialist Schools an Illusion

Thursday 22 January 2009

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust’s claim that having a specialism enables a school to do better is based on an illusion, according to research published today by the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.

The report’s authors Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson show that specialist schools appear to do better because the poorer performing schools were not granted specialist status. From the beginning specialist schools have been creamed off leaving a progressively weaker residual pool.

Professor Smithers said: “All the SSAT’s 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.”

In particular, the report looks at the impact of specialist science schools on physics participation and performance.

The government has attempted to increase provision by requiring all specialist science schools to offer GCSE physics. The jury is still out on whether this will boost the A-level. While GCSE entries have risen somewhat in the past decade, the A-level has continued to fall.

In 2007, more pupils in music, languages and maths & computing schools than in science schools obtained an A grade in A-level physics, though fewer did so in technology, engineering, business & enterprise and sports schools.

Dr Robinson said: “It could be argued that specialist schools were a useful way of freshening up ‘bog standard’ comprehensives. But it seems to have left us with a lot of schools with names that do not mean very much. It is odd having music and languages schools that do better in science than the science schools.”

Differences between specialist schools in GCSE and A-level physics take-up and results were found to be associated more with intake than subject.

Specialist schools fell into two broad groupings: the ‘academic’ (science, maths & computing, languages, humanities, and music) and the ‘practical’ (performing arts, technology, engineering, business & enterprise, and sports). Science schools were like other academic schools rather than distinctively scientific.

Comprehensives opting for academic specialisms (including science) tended to have intakes with higher prior attainment, lower eligibility for free school meals and fewer with special needs than schools opting for practical specialisms. They were also more likely to be voluntary aided/foundation, a faith school and single sex.

Grammar schools were more likely than non-selective schools to opt for academic specialisms, to offer GCSE and A-level physics, and to have higher take-up and better results.

The research found that a quarter of the science schools had chosen their specialism on the basis of strength in the subject, but a fifth had done so because they were weak in it and saw specialist status as a lever for improvement.

The main benefit schools saw in being specialist was the extra money.


  1. Specialist Science Schools is the fifth in a series of reports on physics education funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and published by the Carmichael Press. Previous reports were Teacher Deployment and Student Outcomes; Patterns and Policies; Bucking the Trend; and Supply and Retention of Teachers.
  2. The report is available online from 09:00 Wednesday 22 January 2009: science-schools.pdf (2,995 KB).
  3. The four earlier reports are also available online.


Professor Alan Smithers
Centre for Education and Employment Research
University of Buckingham
Tel: +44 (0)1280 820270 (direct line)
mobile: +44 (0)7974 765864

Dr Pamela Robinson Centre for Education and Employment Research
University of Buckingham
Tel: +44 (0)1280 820353 (direct line)
mobile: +44 (0)7974 725006