The advantages of being part of a local authority where all schools have specialist status are enormous, as education writer Crispin Andrews found out when he spoke to headteachers in one of them – Plymouth

Having 100% specialist status in a local authority can bring major benefits to schools, teachers, pupils and the wider community if structures, personnel and initiatives are in place that facilitate and drive effective and authority-wide collaboration between schools and community partners. That is the verdict of headteachers in one of the country’s 17 100% specialist local authorities, Plymouth.

Plymouth is a relatively small unitary authority with 78 primaries and 17 secondary schools. Of these, three are grammar schools, 15 have sixth forms, two are for boys only and three are for girls only. There are schools in areas of relative deprivation and some situated in leafy green suburbs. The smallest secondary school in Plymouth has just under 300 students and the largest has over 1,500.

Working within such a varied and potentially fragmented school system, Steve Baker headteacher of Lipson Community School, a specialist arts college, believes that specialist status has a major role to play in fostering collaboration and unity. He says: ‘There are some really impressive projects going on throughout the city where collaboration based around specialisms is proving extremely successful in enhancing the capacity of Plymouth schools to provide better and more personalised learning opportunities for our students and healthier more productive working environments for staff.’

Graham Browne, headteacher at Estover Community College, agrees: ‘What we need now is to build on the examples of good collaborative practices so that more and eventually all students can benefit,’ he says.

City-wide training
At time of writing, every secondary school pupil in Plymouth has the day off and teachers are on their way home after a day’s training at a school that specialises in their particular subject. Every secondary school is involved in the city-wide training day.

‘Specialist schools have the knowledge, expertise and contacts to put on high-quality, focused and diverse training for subject teachers so why not take advantage of it?’ says Steve Baker, who in previous years has brought in, among others, a playwright, a television character actor who lives locally and a subject adviser from another authority to lead training sessions for the authority’s performing arts teachers.

According to Graham Browne, over 100 of Plymouth’s art and design teachers are currently in the building and it is the same for PE, design and technology, language, maths and all the other subjects in their own designated specialist school. ‘Being 100% specialist means that every teacher in every subject area and can access high-quality specialist training,’ says Annie Singer senior adviser for secondary with Plymouth City Council. ‘It means we have a vehicle for ensuring that all schools can address city-wide priorities.’

Personalised learning
One such priority is the development of personalised learning at Key Stages 4 and 5, leading to the introduction of the new 14-19 diplomas. By next September the first five of the 14 diplomas – construction and the built environment, creative and media, engineering, IT, and society health and development – are due to be running in Plymouth. All 14 must be in place across the authority by 2010 and local consortiums already set up to provide broader more personalised routes for this age group will be tasked with bidding and delivering.

‘Specialist schools sit at the heart of these consortiums as they have the capacity to lead on and deliver the diplomas in their specialist areas,’ says Andy Birkett, headteacher at Hele’s School. With joint specialisms in modern foreign languages, maths and computing and vocational studies, the school is well placed to do this, as according to Annie Singer, is Devonport High with its specialism in engineering. ‘Already young people are coming from all over Plymouth to study A-level engineering at Devonport,’ she says, while Graham Browne tells how this year alone 45 new students have joined the Estover sixth form – in particular because of a pre-university art foundation course offered at the school.

‘It will take time to grow the necessary capacity to develop this sort of provision,’ adds Steve Baker. ‘Schools, in particular those in challenging areas, have targets to think about and can find it difficult to release staff for the meetings with external partners, many of whom, as they come from FE or business and industry, don’t yet always speak the same language as teachers.’

‘The immediate challenge in creating effective 14-19 diploma provision will be to somehow create, through staffing structures, time for people to go out and do the essential groundwork. Having specialist schools in every subject and across the whole local authority should in theory at least, make this easier – not least because with the additional funding it is possible to over staff slightly, as we have done by 0.5 this year because we knew we had a new creative media curriculum to write.’

Thinking big
Steve Baker believes that taking lots of small steps while thinking big is the best way to go about introducing new ideas and initiatives. Ten years ago three schools, Estover, Plymouth High for Girls and  Lipson got together to offer a few minority A-levels in subjects such as politics, economics and psychology – one at each school – to give students from all three a wider choice. Now the mini-consortium delivers its entire 16-19 entitlement in this way with each leading in its own specialist areas. Money is put aside from each school’s specialism budget so students are bussed around to the relevant school. Plans are afoot to expand this programme to 14-16 and other such consortiums have and are developing around the city as collaborations between other schools become stronger.

To make such a system work, Steve Baker believes that action must be taken at three levels. ‘First, headteachers need to establish an executive group with a clear set of protocols about how the system will work, how it will be quality assessed, complaints dealt with and performance monitored,’ he says. ‘Next, operational groups need to work out practicalities such as timetabling, exam entry and pastoral care. Then staffing issues need to be sorted out. How many teachers for each subject area do you need? Where and by whom will they be employed? Lastly, teachers based at the different schools need time to network and discuss relevant issues.’

Backs to the wall
There are a number of issues relating to the smooth running of such a project at 14-16 – not least the larger number of pupils to move around the city and the chaos it could cause to transport systems were it all to be happening at the same time. Visions of long queues of buses carrying reluctant late-arriving 14-year-olds from school to school while teachers sip coffee in the staffroom might be the stuff of dreams for tabloid journalists and satirical comedians but it is unlikely to do much for educational standards or the reputations of schools.

Often collaboration works best when schools find themselves with their backs to the wall. Modern foreign languages are no longer compulsory at 14-16, unless of course you happen to be at a language college. In Plymouth, the four language colleges have an additional reason for pooling their energies and resources – they have been tasked with carrying out the local authority’s primary language strategy. ‘Not only is your specialist subject under threat nationally but you are responsible for developing that specialism within all 78 of the authority’s primary schools – it’s a pretty good reason for  getting your act together as a group,’ says Andy Birkett, whose school, Hele’s, has been a language college since 2000.

As well as being vocal on the national stage, the four language colleges work together to provide training, resources, specialist teaching support for primary teachers in French, German and Spanish. They have also led the development of links with China and have fostered a link with a school in Jiaxing, 200km south of Shanghai, that has since been developed into a wider city-to-city relationship by leaders of both.

‘It tends to be harder to generate this level of collaboration within other specialisms,’ says Andy Birkett. Both Steve Baker and Graham Brown concur, seeing provision as ad hoc and often dependent on relationships between heads and good will. All agree, however, that one particular specialism is getting it right – making the most of its universal coverage for the benefit of children, schools, teachers and the
local community.

Examples of good practice
‘Sports colleges are a class apart!’ says Graham Brown. ‘They have the structure and the personnel to make their system work on the ground – it is something I’d like to see replicated within other specialisms,’ adds Steve Baker.

It would be extremely expensive to give professionals within every school dedicated time to develop their subject area. Secondary school sport coordinators have two days a week off teaching timetable and primary link teachers 12 days a year – both paid by the school sport partnership, whose budget is centrally funded and separate to either specialist school or local authority budget.

Each sports college also has a partnership development manager – in most cases based at the sports college – to oversee implement the national PE School Sport and Club Links (PESSCL) strategy and a rapidly growing network of club and community sports coaching and development – collected together under the moniker of the County Sports Partnership, to work alongside. CSP’s and their members such as clubs and the local representatives of national governing bodies of sport also have pots of money that are being used to supplement and develop sporting opportunities in schools.

‘It gives you a massive opportunity to reach young people,’ says Wendy Brett, headteacher at one of Plymouth’s two sports colleges, Sir John Hunt’s, whose school sport partnership last year ensured that 89% of pupils within the partnership were doing at least two hours of high-quality PE and sport a week. This figure is 14% above the national average and 15% above their own figures for last year. ‘The growing expertise base enables our staff to focus on developing healthy lifestyles as well as competitive sport and also delivering new activities to encourage an ever wider proportion of youngsters to take up physical activity,’ she adds.

‘Of course it would be expensive but we have a model that is proven to work in widening take up of provision, delivering high quality and raising standards, so it would be foolish not to at least learn from it,’ says Steve Baker.

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – December 2007