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Only radical change will drive the 14-19 agenda

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“Studio schools are spreading… because they’ve shown their worth in providing young people with the skills and attitudes they need to make a success of work and life.”

These words were spoken almost three years ago by the schools commissioner at the time, Liz Sidwell, when she announced the approval of the latest wave of the specialist 14-19 free schools.

But the project hasn’t quite had the transformational impact that some expected. While a handful of the schools have gone on to establish themselves, the majority have struggled to carve out a place in the educational landscape.

The list of studio school closures already announced runs from Hull to Hinckley, from Clacton to Nuneaton. Just yesterday came the announcement that the two grandly named Da Vinci studio schools in the Hertfordshire towns of Letchworth and Stevenage will follow suit. Their younger students will move to neighbouring schools, with North Hertfordshire College bringing the schools’ post-16 provision in-house.

This isn’t to dismiss the studio school philosophy out of hand: the Rye Studio School in East Sussex, for instance, was rated “outstanding” by inspectors last year. But by and large, the project has led to many schools struggling to attract students and justify the millions spent on them.

Similarly, while there are some examples of successful university technical colleges (UTCs) – not least the very first one, the JCB Academy – too many of them have ended up massively undersubscribed.

Privately, many principals acknowledge that it has proved more challenging than they expected to convince parents that the schools offer a curriculum to stretch the most gifted students, not just those who have found school life difficult.

Conversely, the move to allow colleges to recruit directly at 14 with the goal of offering a new opportunity precisely for those students who have struggled in an academic environment has proved to be just as much of a damp squib. Again, there are examples of this working well; the Hull College Group, for instance, has attracted 14-year-old learners in significant numbers (the roll doubled to more than 200 in 2014-15). But the fact that the overall number of college 14-16 recruits across England stands in the hundreds rather than the thousands signals the difficulty in shifting decades’ of parental and educational behaviour.

Back in 2005, Sir Mike Tomlinson’s seminal report set out a blueprint for 14-19 education, arguing for the need to move away from the traditional break at the age of 16. The idea had many supporters, not least the architect of the UTC programme, Lord Baker. Even as recently as last year, Tristram Hunt, then shadow education secretary, revealed that he favoured moving towards a baccalaureate-style “14-19 curriculum and qualification framework”. But the battering that Labour received at the ballot box left this ambition destined to remain unfulfilled.

In 2005, the outcome was just the same, but for very different reasons. Despite widespread support for the proposal from across the education world, Tony Blair, the prime minister at the time, decided that such a radical change was a step too far.

The break at 16 is so deeply ingrained into the consciousness of students, parents and educational professionals that any kind of institution asking students to leave their school at 14 immediately has an almighty struggle on its hands. This isn’t to say that there’s no point in offering alternative pathways: there are pockets of good practice around the country that show it can be done. But without a radical structural overhaul of the country’s education system, any institutions dabbling in this area will remain on the margins rather than in the mainstream.

@stephenexley

This is an article from the 4 March edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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