This paper explores some of the policy tensions inherent in the development of Specialist Schools in England under the New Labour Government, and ways in which research may potentially assist in alleviating those tensions. It outlines the dual agendas currently at play in the Specialist School policy that is central to the government's moves to transform secondary education and raise standards in teaching and learning. Schools achieving specialist status are automatically recognised as being 'different from', but at the same time, inherit a clear remit to work closely with neighbouring schools in the drive to raise educational standards and spread innovative practice. The expectation is that Specialist Schools will be proactive in collaborative activity, yet they continue to be publicly judged by their ability to outperform other schools. Data and experiences from a project focusing on Specialist Sports Colleges within England is used to illustrate the ways in which these collaborative-competitive tensions are being played out in practice. Attention is drawn to the partnerships that colleges have been inclined to pursue and have yet to firmly establish. Discussion then addresses whether researchers may be proactive in challenging the dominant reference points used in evaluations of performance and thereby encourage a greater commitment to inclusive and collaborative practice.