More secondary schools or better secondary education?

According to the BBC, but not yet the DfE, the government are going to allow a further 13 studio schools for 14-18 year olds. These schools seem somewhat similar to University Technical Schools, another new form of school administered, along with academies and free schools, from Whitehall. These schools are in the tradition set by Kenneth Baker when he was Secretary of State for Education and established the City Technology Colleges, not all of which were in cities, nor were colleges rather than schools and had varying degrees of technology in the curriculum.

Also according to the BBC there is an interesting array of employers involved in the new studio schools, including charities such as the RSPCA. One does wonder why it needs a new type of school, with all its associated overheads including the salary of the leadership team, to solve what looks like local skill deficiencies in the labour market. Now that pupils can move to further education colleges from 14 onwards why cannot specific courses be developed there rather than creating yet more institutions, especially when numbers at the upper end of secondary schools are generally still falling.  It is worth recalling that in the famous Section 6 of the Thatcher Education Act that granted parental choice over schooling there was a ‘get out’ clause of not being ‘prejudicial to the efficient use of resources’. No such fetter appears to hamper the present government when it comes to setting up new schools.

However, Andrew Webb, the new President of the Association of Directors of Children Services believes that the debate about new forms of schooling is over, and everyone should just move on. Like so many others, his comments seem to focus mainly on the secondary sector whereas the future of the growing primary sector seems anything but clear.

One of the new Studio Schools announced today is to be a space studio in Banbury with the involvement of The National Space Centre, UK Space Agency and European Space Agency. This is a town where one of the current academies has just been consulting on altering its admission arrangements to introduce banding. Across the town there were 697 pupils in state schools at the end of Key Stage 4 in 2012 according to DfE figures. If the Studio School is to have an intake of, say, 100, giving a school of about 400; small by current standards for secondary schools, it will need to take almost 15% from each existing school or perhaps 10% if the catchment area is widened to include towns like Brackley, Bicester, Leamington Spa and Oxford where there are good travel links to Banbury. What the knock-on effect on the viability of science and technology courses at these schools will be is a moot point, but has not doubt has been considered somewhere before approval was given for the space studio to be announced.  And some pupils may choose instead to opt for the new University Technical School to be established elsewhere in Oxfordshire that was announced on the 28th March and will specialise in science research, engineering and computing. Its proposer is Oxford and Cherwell Valley College. The university sponsor is the University of Reading and according to the DfE its partners include BMW, IBM, Culham Science Centre, and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

There are those, not least in some of the teacher associations that are concerned about whether these new schools will encourage specialisation too early, and it is to be hoped that pupils who attend these schools will not have too narrow a focus too soon in their education. Will they also be drawn from across the ability spectrum or just from those regarded as in the top third of the ability range?

What is becoming clear is that the blueprint for the shape of schooling in England isn’t being widely discussed and tested in the cauldron of public debate. It hardly constitutes open government and if the new President of ADCS doesn’t care, who does? 

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