Studio Schools: free schools with a purpose?

Back in January, I wrote a post entitled Caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care. In the comments section of that post, I had an exchange with Dom Murphy from Geek Talent, which led me to finding out about Studio West, a school in Newcastle. 

Studio schools are:

a type of secondary school in England that is designed to give students practical skills in workplace environments as well as traditional academic and vocational courses of study. Like traditional schools, studio schools teach the National Curriculum and offer academic and vocational qualifications. However studio schools also have links to local employers and offer education related to the world of work.

I’d heard of Studio schools before while working at Mozilla as one being set up in Manchester expressed an interest in using Open Badges with their curriculum. I thought I could help with Studio West’s mission, so I arranged to visit today.

Somewhat fortuitously, my children’s school was closed today so I took along my nine year-old son, Ben. Although we live in Morpeth which has some of the best schools in the region, I’m dissatisfied with the narrow focus of the curriculum and lack of a whole education.

There’s a longer post to be written about Studio schools, about the purpose of education, about the way we structure society. That post would be full of ‘oughts’ rather than being focus on what ‘is’. The fact is that we live in a world where the educational have nots (minus a few very rare exceptions) can expect a life of exclusion, relative poverty, and discrimination. There’s meta-level ways of solving this, and there’s on-the-ground ways of dealing with the inequality.

Studio West feels like somewhat of an odd hybrid. At present, it’s housed in the buildings left behind when another school shut down. It’s sponsored by Kenton School, an Academy in Newcastle, and despite the size of the premises, only has 30-40 students per year group. With 15 full-time members of staff and 160 students, that means an extremely favourable staff/student ratio. At times, it looked like that’s exactly what is required; a significant proportion of Studio West’s intake are students who have found it difficult in other kinds of schools.

There was much to like at Studio West. I particularly liked the motivational posters on the wall, the calm environment, the amount of physical space available. Most of all, I liked the way there was a clear focus on what students were there for: to get a job and be successful. Whether or not this is your view of what education is for, it’s hard to argue against that kind of clarity of purpose, especially given Studio West’s current cohorts.

Year 9 students (aged 13/14) have the opportunity to get involved with Industry Cadets, a national industry-led accreditation. In Year 10 they spend over six weeks doing work experience. There’s slightly less focus on this in Year 11 while they focus on exams, but then in years 12 and 13 (Sixth Form) students work two days a week with employers while studying at Studio West.

It’s hard for me to look at anything these days without thinking about Open Badges. As I said to Sam McLoughlin, Business Engagement Manager at Studio West, the CREATE framework used by all Studio schools looks ripe for badging:

Schooling is a funny old business. In a perfect world, we’d have a system that’s both less fragmented and less prescriptive than that we’ve got now. My son would be learning about more important things than the ‘fronted adverbials’ approach to English that has put him off the subject. At the moment, most of the credentials that young people can earn and have ‘weight’ in the marketplace involve sitting still and writing for long periods of time. 

  

Studio schools, with their outwards-looking focus, allow for schools to be less of a ‘black box’ for parents, employers, and the community. They have a clear purpose and, at least in the case of Studio West, look to provide a ladder to their students for a better future.