In England the government’s specialist schools initiative is transforming the nature of secondary education. A three-year longitudinal case study tracked the effects of specialist performing arts college status on two schools. The sites were a mainstream school drawing pupils from an area of high social deprivation and disadvantage, and a special school catering for pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties, which were awarded joint performing arts college status. The government’s preferred criterion for judging the success of specialist schools is improvement in whole-school examination results. The authors argue that this is a crude and inappropriate measure for these case study schools and probably others. Using questionnaires, interviews and documentation they tell an ‘inside story’ of experiences, challenges and achievements, from the perspectives of the schools’ mangers, staff and pupils. Alternative ‘value-added’ features emerged that were positive indicators of enrichment and success in both schools.