Along with Free Schools, the Coalition, (well the Conservative section at least), is keen on University Technical Schools and Studio Schools. I don’t really know what my Party’s position is on these new types of 14-18 schools offering specialisms designed to help the local labour market, and provide youngsters will vocational skills. I suppose we accepted them as part of the Coalition deal, and because we have always wanted better 14-18 education for those not likely to be heading straight for university at eighteen. But, I don’t recall any serious debate about the topic; perhaps I missed it somewhere early on in the life of the Coalition.
Whatever their purpose, it is sad to see that the 39 UTCs and Studio Schools open by the start of September 2103 have in some cases attracted only limited numbers of students. Perhaps not surprisingly, the UTC with the largest number of students is the JCB Academy, a flagship schools which opened in January 2013, and had 276 students enrolled by September of that year. As befits its flagship status, it also had the best attendance record of any of these schools.
Of the other UTCs and studio schools open in September 2013, 25 had an enrolment of 100 students or less, and 14 had enrolled more than 100 students. Now 150 students is a reasonable number for one year group in a 14-18 school, and would give a total of 600 when the school was fully operational. However, three of the schools with fewer than 50 pupils opened in 2012, and one that opened in 2011 with the first tranche of such schools still, apparently, only has 54 students on roll in September 2013. So, unless they increase enrolment over the next two years, they could be fully operational with little more than 100 students.
I am not sure how much capital for new buildings has been ploughed into this programme, but so far it is educating fewer than 2,500 students across the whole of England, or the size of one large comprehensive school. Hopefully, the new schools aiming to come on stream in 2014 will have fared better in the admissions round just completed; perhaps someone might like to file a few FOI requests to find out.
After the recent debate about funding for the 800,000 extra pupils entering the mainstream school system over the decade after 2010, it might be appropriate to ask whether many of the skills being offered in both studio schools and UTCs could have been taught more cost effectively in the further education sector. How far should the national taxpayer be asked to pay for a specialist local school that is often only of benefit to a small section of local industry? This is especially the case when government is also championing the growth in apprenticeships: the two policies risk being at odds with one another.
As the decisions on where to place these schools seem more related to who wants to fund them, the opportunity to develop a coherent policy towards 14-18 education once again appears to have been lost.