Good morning everyone and thank you Geoff for that warm welcome.
The more observant among you will by now have realised that I’m not Michael Gove, who unfortunately has been called away at the last minute. He has asked me to apologise on his behalf and to say how sorry he is not to be here. I know that he is a big fan of studio schools, a great admirer of the pioneering work done by the Young Foundation, and a keen supporter of the Studio Schools Trust, which he recently described as ‘superb’.
But I am delighted to be here in his place because it gives me the chance - less eloquently than Michael no doubt - to put on the record my own support for the work of the Studio Schools Trust and my appreciation for what you do.
I have been lucky enough to go to Barnfield College in Luton, shortly after it opened one of the first two studio schools in September. And last Friday I was at Futures Community College in Southend-on-Sea - not a studio school but doing something similar around practical training.
I am the new kid on the block, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to get the point.
Switched-on, positive children working hard and learning practical skills.
Switched-on, positive employers telling me how brilliant it was for them.
Academic and vocational teaching being offered side by side; learning tailored to pupils’ individual needs; aspirations raised, so that going to university or getting a good job becomes a realistic prospect for children in families where aspiration and expectation has been very low.
So I want to thank them, as well as everyone at the Netherhall Learning Campus in Kirklees, the Studio Schools Trust and the Young Foundation for the enormous amount of work they’ve done to push the boundaries forward and make the argument for why we need to offer young people the chance of acquiring high-quality practical and technical skills, as well as high-quality academic qualifications.
I came to this new job not having worked in education. For the last 12 years, I ran my own business. It has meant I have had - and still have - a steep learning curve, but coming to something fresh is not without advantages.
It means you have to approach things from first principles and you have to ask lots of questions.
Questions like: are enough of our children leaving primary school able to read and write properly?
Are we equipping young people with the skills, knowledge and aspirations employers and universities are demanding?
Have we got an exam and qualification system to which we have confidence? Have league tables and equivalents led to gaming of the system?
Are we motivating and enthusing the workforce of tomorrow - so they fulfil their potential and have the confidence to succeed? Or, at the very least, know how to turn up on time, work in a team, or take direction from a manager?
Is vocational and practical training strong enough so we can compete internationally - or even be able to fill jobs at home without having to recruit from overseas?
How do we measure up against best practice internationally?
To which, my answers are: no, up to a point, not really, yes, not well enough, no and it’s a very mixed picture.
The truth is that too many young people still don’t get the right skills and qualifications for work and further study.
Too many young people are turned off learning at an early age, fall behind and then get left behind.
And it’s not good enough for more young people to be staying on in education if the qualifications they’re working towards aren’t valued by future employers.
I also can’t help feeling that out of a well-intended desire to give vocational and academic skills parity of esteem - which is right - we have ended up undervaluing both.
We’ve forced vocational and academic qualifications to have some kind of uneasy equivalence, when actually we should just be making sure that they are all high quality and do what universities and employers need. And above all that they should be tailored to what individual children need.
So, what are we doing about it?
The top line is that we are trying to get out of the hair of professions to allow them to get on with what they do best. To come up with ideas of their own - like studio schools - as to how they can best cater for their children.
We also want to stop directing and prescribing quite so much, I hope leaving more space for professionals to learn from each other, forming partnerships, spreading good practice and raising standards through collaboration and the sharing of experience.
More specifically, we have a number of clear aims.
First, to strengthen qualifications so they are more robust, rigorous and teach the economically valuable skills that employers demand to keep pace with the rest of the world.
We will also give universities and employers more say over developing A levels. It’s right that those with the strongest interest in making sure young people have the right skills have a louder voice.
Second, we’ve asked Professor Alison Wolf to lead an independent review of vocational qualifications. Alison’s review isn’t about creating yet another set of Whitehall-designed, top-down qualifications - it’s about giving colleges and schools the flexibility to offer qualifications that meet the labour market’s constantly shifting demands and higher expectations.
Third, we want to raise the quality of careers guidance.
Fourth, we are expanding the number of Apprenticeships.
It’s sobering that only eight per cent of employers in England offer Apprenticeships - compared with 24 per cent in Germany. And of businesses with at least 500 employees, it’s just 30 per cent here compared with more than 90 per cent across in Germany.
Fifth, we are trying to put the right structures in place through our wider reform programme.
People sometimes say to me: why are you making these structural changes? Surely its teachers who make the difference? Stop messing around and concentrate on the teachers.
I agree totally that it always comes down to people - and we will be saying more about that in our white paper to be published shortly. But the point of the structural changes is to give those people more space and it provides the opportunity for new ideas to bubble up from below.
So we’re expanding the Academies programme and we’re ensuring that new providers including parents, community groups and businesses can come together and open new Free Schools where there’s demand - bringing outside expertise and experience into the state sector.
That’s why we back Lord Baker, who through the Baker-Dearing Trust that he set up with the late Lord Dearing, is doing a fantastic job in pioneering a new generation of University Technical Colleges.
They will offer high-quality technical qualifications - all as autonomous institutions, sponsored by leading local businesses and a local university.
The JCB Academy in Staffordshire is already open - offering hard practical learning alongside academic GCSEs.
The new UTC in Birmingham will specialise in engineering and manufacturing when it opens in 2012 - with students working with Aston University engineering staff and students, as well as local business and colleges.
And Ken has ambitious plans to open many more in cities across the country.
Studio schools - the way forward
And it’s in that same spirit that we are right behind the studio schools movement and keen to see it grow, and we hope that the wider education system sits up and takes note of your distinctive philosophy and ethos.
We think that studio schools have huge potential, and it’s not just us who think so. I gather that there is a great deal of interest from overseas.
Studio schools have a fresh and new culture for young people at risk of dropping out elsewhere. They are all ability, have high aspirations for all pupils and make sure young people get the strong qualifications they need to get into employment or university, whether that’s GCSEs, A levels, Diplomas, BTECs or NVQs.
But they also give them the practical skills employers demand in trades like construction, hospitality, plumbing and engineering, as well as softer skills like team working, communication, initiative and punctuality - exactly the kind of intangibles that businesses want but often can’t find in school leavers.
Studio schools show us how to go beyond so-called ‘traditional’ teaching by using some of the most innovative teaching methods like personal mentoring and coaching, project-based learning which cuts across subjects, and rooting lessons in practical, real-life situations. And they use smaller classes to back up high-quality staff, allowing them to focus more attention on pupils who might have been at risk of falling behind or switching off.
And one vital point: this doesn’t mean dumbing down - it’s about making sure young people are inspired and excited to invest the time and effort in their own futures.
They mustn’t be seen as some kind of halfway house between mainstream provision and PRUs, as some sort of sticking plaster. This is exactly the kind of false label, often attached to vocational education, which we need to squash. It doesn’t do justice to the teachers teaching or the pupils learning in them. And it misses the point about the enormous potential that studio schools have.
By bringing employers into the classroom, it’s a win-win for them and the children.
Young people are doing real work in real business environments - the over-16s are paid a proper wage, but above all they are getting the chance to work alongside professionals on real commercial projects.
I like the fact that employers involved in studio schools recognise that there is not much value in making noises-off about the quality of skills, while not actually working in schools directly. So it is absolutely right they are reaching out to young people directly and taking them under their wing.
By working together, I know we can spread the word about the studio school approach. And I would urge everyone here who thinks they might be interested to talk to the Studio Schools Trust.
Today is a celebration of the launch of the first two studio schools, but I hope it also heralds more to come.
It is extremely important that the pioneers do well, not just for the children you are teaching, but because of the role models you can be.
Showing that it is possible to break down the long-standing divide between academic and vocational qualifications that has existed in our country for too long. Showing that it is possible to re-engage young people and get them to set their targets higher.
And showing that we can give more young people real choice in their lives.
I believe that studio schools can help achieve all of that.
And I hope this is just the start of things to come.