ANONYMOUS WEEK: A Tory Education Policy Disaster

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It was announced today that two studio schools in the Midlands are to close at Christmas due to a lack of students. Previously, studio schools in Southampton, Accrington, Clacton and Hull had closed due to a lack of demand. The provisional GCSE results showed that just 17.6% of students in studio schools achieved 5 good GCSEs including English and maths. That this spectacular level of failure has not been widely reported shows, perhaps, that studio schools have not been getting the scrutiny they deserve. You may have never heard of them.

Studio schools were schools which provided a heavily vocational curriculum for students at 14. They were introduced alongside UTCs (University Technical Colleges) which were advocated by Lord Baker. Studio schools were to be sponsored by employers; UTCs by universities. Baker, a long time supporter of selection, never hid that he thought most students were unsuitable for an academic education. His desire for different tiers of education for different types of students led naturally to his support for a new vocational and technical sector for KS4 and 5. It was never particularly clear how this fitted in with the wider agenda of the DfE which, at the time, had generally seemed hostile to vocational options in secondary schools. Certainly, the CREATE Framework followed by the studio schools looks like Michael Gove’s worse nightmare. However, Baker is a Tory grandee, and he appears to have got his way with the creation of this new sector in education. To be fair, the UTCs have not failed quite as spectacularly as the studio schools, but two have closed, they are generally undersubscribed,  and only 36.3% of students at UTCs have achieved 5 good GCSEs including maths and English. I doubt anyone would want to bet on any particular studio school or UTC lasting until the next general election.

How has such a disaster been allowed to happen? Well, it doesn’t help that Labour politicians were only too happy to jump on Baker’s bandwagon. As shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg welcomed the introduction of studio schools:

“I am a strong supporter of Studio Schools, and am pleased that eleven new schools have opened this September across England. By working closely with employers and businesses, Studio Schools will help students gain a broad range of employability skills and work experience, as well as the key qualifications that they need to succeed.”

Tristram Hunt, when shadow education secretary, declared his support for UTCs and claimed that the education he saw at a studio school he visited “points to some of the changes and trends that are happening in education” and accepted “new pathways” through the school system.

Ofsted also appears to have failed to scrutinise studio schools satisfactorily. The Midland Studio College in Hinckley (whose closure was announced today) was found to be Outstanding in February 2014. Rye Studio School was found to be Outstanding in June of this year. Yet the provisional results of both these schools show just 8% of students getting 5 good GCSEs in English and maths, among the lowest in the country. How could schools where students did so badly, possibly be outstanding? Ofsted weren’t the only ones to see nothing wrong with these schools. Even those who you’d expect to be critical of the government, didn’t ask the important questions. The first of these two schools was given a puff piece in the Guardian; the second was the very same school Tristram Hunt was praising above.

The reason I have chosen to be anonymous is because I worked for a time at a studio school. I saw first hand why it was destined to fail.

  1. The ethos was that students should not have to cope with hard work or decent discipline.
  2. Because the school was undersubscribed, other schools saw it as a dumping ground for difficult students.
  3. Those who positively chose the school often did so because they were failing where they were, sometimes academically; sometimes because they were at risk of exclusion.
  4. Despite a high proportion of challenging students, and students with real difficulties, there was a culture of denying that students had SEN or behaviour problems.
  5. There was a huge turnover of staff, particularly in core subjects.
  6. Admin was unbelievably bad. Staff often didn’t know when they should be teaching, or how many lessons. Managers, when asked for basic information would often lie, or avoid answering.
  7. Micro-management was normal, with teachers being bombarded with new policies and paperwork, often based on claims about what Ofsted would want.
  8. The working conditions were terrible. There were no union reps in place and the school blatantly ignored the terms of  staff contracts.

So I’m not surprised to hear of more studio schools closing. This was bad policy and also poor scrutiny of policy. Let’s hope all parties learn from it and that those students whose education has already been blighted by studio schools are able to move on to something better.

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