Secondary schools have been accused of dumping unwanted pupils on studio schools and of carrying out “whispering campaigns” against the institutions.
The allegations have been made by David Nicoll, chief executive of the Studio Schools Trust, at a time when the state-funded schools, which teach work-related skills to 14- to 19-year-olds, are under serious pressure. Of the 48 studio schools set up since 2010, 14 have closed or are set to close.
Speaking to TES, Mr Nicoll also warned that the government’s plans to make the English Baccalaureate (EBac) compulsory for the vast majority of pupils could further “threaten the existence” of many studio schools.
Government spending figures published last month covering 27 of the schools suggest that they cost an average of around £1.8 million each to build.
Mr Nicoll said: “In some cases, children who wanted to go to a studio school – very able children – are being persuaded not to go there.
“In other cases, we’ve had examples where people with behavioural issues are advised that, rather than going on to do GCSEs at their school, a studio school would be a good place for them.”
Teachers at one school even tried to push pupils they did not want towards a nearby studio school by claiming that they would all be given iPads, Mr Nicoll added.
In addition, local authorities are refusing to list studio schools in official literature and are steering “inappropriate” students towards them, he said.
Mr Nicoll cited one council that claimed it had a group of eight students who wanted to attend a studio school, but none of the 14-year-olds, or their parents, spoke any English.
“How you’re meant to manage any project work with students who don’t speak any English is beyond me,” he said, adding: “The notion that the parents who didn’t speak any English opted independently for a studio school is farcical.”
Mr Nicoll suggested that some schools tried to persuade pupils to move to studio schools because the individuals involved would negatively affect GCSE league-table performance.
Studio schools could complain to education secretary Nicky Morgan that they are being unfairly treated, but they are too scared of souring relationships further with councils and local schools, according to Mr Nicoll.
Jonathan Simons, head of education at the Policy Exchange thinktank, suggested that there could be truth in the accusations.
“The difficulty with any school system that transfers at 14 is that there is always a temptation for schools and pupils to use that as an exit for pupils who are struggling in mainstream education for whatever reason, who are therefore disproportionately likely to go to such schools,” he said.
But Mr Simons expressed caution about schools that narrow the curriculum early on, saying: “Transition at 14 risks narrowing children’s options too quickly.”
Studio schools were launched as an attempt to boost young people’s employability, but many have struggled to attract pupils and staff. Teaching leaders have argued that they draw funding away from other schools and only offer a narrow curriculum.
The most recent school to announce its closure was The Studio School in Luton, run by the Shared Learning Trust. It revealed last month that it had enrolled only 66 students despite having capacity for 300 pupils, with no new pupils signed up to start in September.
In a report, “Studio Schools: Taking Stock Five Years On”, the Studio Schools Trust points to a number of concerns, including financial vulnerability caused by changes to school funding, and budget pressures faced across the further education sector.
In addition, some local authorities have been “passively hostile” to studio schools and schools have started “whispering campaigns”, which have made it difficult to market studio schools, the report states.
However, Mr Nicoll insisted that the studio schools model was sustainable, and said that three additional studio schools had applied for official approval in the latest application round last month, with another planning to apply at the next opportunity in September.
But he said the schools’ future would be at risk if the EBac league table measure, focused on academic GCSEs, was made compulsory. “That would be a very significant problem and would threaten the existence of a lot of [studio] schools,” he said.
It would also make it more difficult for studio schools to tailor the curriculum to their students, Mr Nicoll added.
Despite the criticism, an independent evaluation of the Studio Schools Trust in February 2013 praised “excellent” exam results at its schools, as well as “evidence of movement in a positive direction”.
But it is difficult to measure the performance of studio schools accurately, Mr Nicoll said, partly because no one has been willing to fund a rigorous evaluation tool.
The Local Government Association declined to comment on the claims.
What is a studio school?
Studio schools were first opened under the Coalition government in 2010 and are for 14- to 19-year-olds. They tend to be relatively small, with around 300 pupils, and teach the national curriculum, taking into account the skills needs of local employers.
They were designed to take learning out of the traditional classroom setting, with a greater focus on practical work. Welcoming the first wave of 12 studio schools in 2011, former education secretary Michael Gove said: “Studio schools offer academic and vocational qualifications, but teach them in a practical and project-based way…These schools respond directly to the demand of parents, communities and business.”
A total of 48 studio schools have been opened, but 14 have closed or are due to close.
Adapting for the future
David Nicoll, chief executive of the Studio Schools Trust, said that studio schools would need to adapt if they were to become more attractive to prospective parents and students.
This would involve moving away from an emphasis on industries such as construction and business enterprise towards the “creative industries” and healthcare sector.
“As potential sponsors come forward, there are some things we know don’t attract parents. Bizarrely, construction is one of them,” Mr Nicoll said. Business enterprise was also unpopular, as “no one really knows what it means”, he said.