Studio Schools – the great white elephant in the room.

Let me begin by saying I’m an advocate of Free Schools and Studio Schools, I know people have objections to them and you could easily levy the claim that they are political pawns and are educational sleights of hand and are gimmicky or elitist and many other things. However I think parents and communities are quite often a solid yardstick by which to judge how best to approach education in a particular geography and really focus on the areas that are important to them.

The fact that £150 million has been ostensibly poured down the drain as many of the Free School experiments have curled up and eaten their own handles is not the most glowing testimonial to their success, but I suspect this is more down to the dilettantes playing at running a school rather than the ambition of the project. Studio Schools however are a slightly different but equally pungent kettle of fish. If one were being cynical, something at Edducan we heartily strive to avoid, one could suggest that by creating a separate space for more vocational teaching, schools are farming out the students that are least likely to go to university and most likely to pull their A Level results down. Now personally I don’t much care about that, regardless of the motivation, students are being given the opportunity to gain valuable on the job skills and experiences that may very well advance their cause to a much greater degree than pursuing the more traditional academic route.

However, and this is where I’ve been experiencing difficulties lately, the Studio Schools that I have had direct dealings with are so consumed with their own sense of being innovative they are actually falling into the same old traps as the ones they have been seeking to avoid. A new school due to open this September, linked to a school which my partner and I have done lots of work at in the last few years, dismissed us without so much as a conversation about everything we offer. The reason being that because they were following the IB there was already a portion of the curriculum dedicated to work preparedness. So far so good but if the curriculum is going to be taught by teachers then how is that different to all the other schools?

Knowing what to teach is not the same thing as understanding it, in the words of A Fish called Wanda,

‘Apes don’t read philosophy.’

‘Yes they do Otto, they just don’t understand it.’

Anyone can read a syllabus, anyone can regurgitate that syllabus, but unless the person doing it also has real world experience of it and can answer questions then it is without value. It’s purely academic, knowing the theory or history of art is a poor comparison to standing in the Sistine Chapel, smelling the air, soaking up the atmosphere and staring up at that magnificent ceiling. Knowing what valve connects to which ventricle does not equip one for surgery. In short, if they want to be truly innovative and do something remarkable for their students they need to give up the illusion they can do it using their in house resources and engage with alternative providers, people and companies that can bring fresh perspectives, new ideas and most crucially ideas that are rooted in a pragmatic and realistic understanding of what the students are actually going to face. Studio Schools need to be very, very aware of the tightrope on which they are balanced before they suffer the same hubristic fate as so many Free Schools.

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