Most studio schools good or better, says Ofsted, but this might count for nothing if results are low

Janet Downs's picture
It’s not possible to come to any reliable conclusion based on a tiny sample, but of the five studio schools inspected* so far only one requires improvement, three are good and one, Midland Studio College, Hinkley, is outstanding.

Studio schools are the smaller siblings of University Technology Colleges (UTCs) for pupils aged 14-19. They’re smaller than average secondary schools and specialise in technical and vocational subjects. Studio schools are expected to deliver most of the curriculum through project-based learning with the help of employers:

“Studio schools also have their own special curriculum linking learning to enterprise projects in the community and providing one day each week of practical work experience on employers’ premises.”

Ofsted* inspection report for Midland Studio College, Hinckley, published February 2014

But education secretary Michael Gove isn’t a fan of project-based learning: he lumps it with “play-based learning, project-work and an anti-knowledge ideology.” But it’s this type of learning which appears to have contributed to the success of studio schools so far.

Barnfield Business and Enterprise Studio Academy** is the oldest. It opened in 2010 but closed in 2012 to be reopened a day later in 2013. In October 2012 Ofsted judged Barnfield Skills Academy* to be good. There were only two things preventing it becoming outstanding, Ofsted wrote: teaching wasn’t consistently good or better and behaviour wasn’t exemplary in lessons.

But this positive Ofsted judgement didn’t stop schools minister Lord Nash sending Barnfield Federation a pre-warning letter about poor results at Barnfield Business and Enterprise Studio Academy in October 2013.

And there’s the rub with studio schools – their technical specialism means they are likely to use vocational exams instead of Gove’s preferred academy EBacc subjects. Their intake is likely to be skewed towards the bottom of the ability range with the “baseline” on entry lower than average. They are also likely to include students who’ve experienced difficulty with education in the past. This is likely to reduce headline results.

That said, Ofsted has judged four out of five to be good or better although three of the five haven’t yet entered students for external exams. Students tended to praise their studio school for treating them as adults, having smaller classes, giving more individual attention and so on.

It is too early to judge the studio school model – too few schools have been inspected. But Ofsted judgements so far are encouraging.

However, positive judgements appear to count for nothing in Lord Nash’s eyes – if results are low then they can expect to receive pre-warning letters despite apparently doing a good job with a more challenging intake.

*Ofsted reports can be downloaded here

**The Barnfield studio school keeps changing its name. This became so confusing that a local paper thought it was two separate establishments. Barnfield Federation, among other things such as claiming £1m for students it didn’t have, was censured for flouting Companies House rules by not registering a change of name.
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 11/03/2014 - 12:23

All such schools deny entitlement to a broad and balanced education. The teaching methods are probably fine, so Gove is half right.

There is plenty of time and space for high quality vocation-specific education post 16.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 11/03/2014 - 12:54

Roger - you're right about the narrow curriculum. One of the Ofsted reports said the curriculum was narrower than in other schools. However, the pupils, who were more likely to have been those who had experienced difficulties with school in the past, were generally positive.

I agree high quality vocation-specific education should ideally wait until post 16. But studio schools are here and more are planned along with their big brothers, UTCs. Given that the DfE seems to think it's OK to spend a lot of taxpayers' money on these when it knows perfectly well they are more likely to do equivalent exams (that's the point) then it can't turn round and criticise them when results are low.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 11/03/2014 - 13:12

Only two University Technical (or Technology) Colleges (UTCs) have been fully inspected yet. Hackney University Technical College and Black Country UTC both require improvement.

The JCB Academy was the first to open in September 2010. It's had a monitoring inspection but it's never had a full Ofsted. It was closed in December 2012 and reopened a day later like Barnfield Studio. This, apparently, was for administrative purposes only because the DfE changed their definitions from "sponsored academies" to UTC/studio school.

The two full inspections and the single monitoring inspection all commented on how the intake comprised pupils which had had difficulty with education in the past - some had been referred from PRUs. I fear that UTCs and studio schools will become to be viewed as alternative provision.

Chris Manners's picture
Tue, 11/03/2014 - 19:40

I wonder if Nash was prompted to send out his letter by broader problems with the Federation.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 12/03/2014 - 08:44

Chris - it's tempting to think that but I believe (no proof) that Nash had to send out these warning letters because he wanted to "prove" the DfE was taking decisive action against "failing" academies. But when he picked on Barnfield Studio whatever-it's-called he didn't appear to notice Ofsted had judged it good.

However, the DfE still allowed Barnfield Fed to keep on sponsoring schools as I point out here. And it's still on the updated (Feb 2014) DfE list of approved academy sponsors downloadable here.

David Nicoll's picture
Wed, 12/03/2014 - 09:55


Thanks for the item. There are a couple of points I'd like to elaborate on, although I'm on a train, so this won't be as full as a response as I'd ideally want. On the various issues that have been raised I would say:

We are obviously pleased by the OFSTED results, and expect more good news on that front in the near future. As you say, only one of the inspections has been 'RI' and even that had a 'good' category. We are sure that if it was inspected tomorrow, the school in question would be rated 'good'.

We have never really seen Studio Schools as vocational, but of course many of them have a specialism relating to a sector of the labour market. At GCSE they tend (not in every case) to follow traditional pathways (Maths, English, Sciences, etc), and some plan to offer the EBacc. Such specialisation that there is more likely to begin at post GCSE level.

Studio Schools have been designed to be comprehensive schools, in the sense that they would have an ability range that reflected the local community. In practice this has varied (although it's very very early) - some have achieved that, others are skewed in both directions. We believe that this skew shifts over time, and such evidence as exists supports that belief.

It's perhaps worth noting that some of the earlier studio schools were not set up as academies - they followed the 'school within a school' model. So in Huddersfield, the studio school which opened in 2010 has had something in the range of 90% of students achieve 5 A*-C including M&E. This is largely invisible since the results are aggregated with those of the host school.

We expect students attending Studio Schools to do better academically than they would have done otherwise, to acquire key employability skills, and to have useful work experience. It isn't a model designed for everyone, but for those who learn more effectively through PBL.

I have to say that we have found Ministers (current and previous government) to be highly supportive of what we are doing. I think some of the bad press that PBL has attracted in the past relates to the activities not being mapped to examination requirements.

UTC's and Studio Schools
We don't really regard UTC's as our siblings, although the two tend to be lumped together in public discussion. The models do have similarities, but also quite importance differences behind the obvious one of size.

As I say, not a full response but I hope that it's helpful

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 12/03/2014 - 10:30

Thanks, David, for the helpful response. I didn't realise some studio schools were schools within a school.

I admit I'm not supportive of pupils making a choice at 14. I would prefer them to have a broad, balanced curriculum until 16 and then decide options. That said, if the choice is between entering a studio school at 14 and not attending school at all then, of course, the former is the better option.

Although the Government has been supportive of studio schools and UTCs there were rumblings at the end of last year the DfE was losing enthusiasm (perhaps because Lord Baker had criticised some aspects of Gove's policies).

Having said that, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) which began in the early 80s. This promoted work-based learning from age 14 and incorporated work-experience. It was seen as integral not bolt-on or only for low ability or disaffected pupils.

My concern is that studio schools and UTCs will be viewed as alternative provision. Ofsted comments on the high proportion of pupils who've had difficulties with education in the past. That said, Ofsted reported that the students were largely positive.

I have a hunch that studio schools will be more successful than UTCs because of their small size. It's far too early to judge but we'll know more when Ofsted has inspected more studio schools and UTCs.

PS I've changed "last" to "past" after you drew attention to the error.

David Nicoll's picture
Wed, 12/03/2014 - 10:43


Thanks for the edit. I'm still on the train, so thought I'd make a couple of points. I don't completely disagree about not specialising at 14 - in some ways studio schools are akin to the sort of options choice that students make at that age, and the focus on fairly conventional GCSE's underlines that.

We also think that schools (all schools) are judged on too narrow a set of criteria. Qualifications and OFSTED judgements are important, but so is preparing young people for life behind school - and the system doesn't measure that.

We'll probably have to agree to disagree on the AP point (we know that some of the schools have a very high ability intake), but that will become clearer over the years.


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 12/03/2014 - 11:03

David - I entirely agree schools are judged too narrowly. And there's too much emphasis on headline results without taking into account a school's intake. The progress measure might go some way to rectify that.

You're right about the importance of schools preparing pupils for life after school - not just employment but in other roles such as parenting and being in a relationship. What gives me concern is the way careers education and guidance has been downgraded. According to Vince Cable, it's teachers' fault because they don't know enough about the world of work. But how many people are experts in any jobs outside their own field of expertise? Very few except properly-trained career professionals.

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