Speech

Lord Nash speaks to the Studio Schools Trust National Conference

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Lord Nash, Schools Minister, reflects on the progress studio schools are making.

Thanks, David [Nicoll, CEO Studio Schools Trust]. It’s good to be here. There can surely be no better rallying cry for why we’re all here today than the energy and enthusiasm of the hugely inspiring young people we’ve just seen.

They remind us - if we needed any reminding - why Simon Cowell is wrong.

Many of you will have seen his comments a few weeks ago that “the secret is to be useless at school and then get lucky”. I understand that he later said he had only been joking.

Now I like a laugh as much as the next person, but I found his words rather sobering. Because, for many children, living in homes where worklessness rules and going to schools where underachievement goes unremarked, I suspect they’re horribly seductive.

If you’ve never seen your parents or even your grandparents work and have never been encouraged to achieve, it’s little wonder that an X Factor win or a lottery bonanza might seem the only route to a better life.

And as we know, this could not be further from the truth. So-called luck is rooted in hard graft and knowledge and skills that are of value to the world - which is as true if you are an artist or an engineer. It’s education not mirages of stardom or windfalls that makes the difference between a life of dead ends and a life where doors open.

Which is why this government is determined to ensure that children from all backgrounds and with all kinds of talents have the chance to succeed. Studio schools, with their unique ethos bridging the academic and vocational, education and employment, have a very important part to play in this.

Landscape

So I’m pleased to see that your schools are going from strength to strength, with numbers up from 2 in 2010 to 28 in 2013, and with 13 more to open in 2014. Extending their reach across the country and offering a rich range of specialisms that span digital media to the marine and cruise industries. And involving over 400 employers including M&S, Sony, Barclays and the BBC as well as many smaller businesses, providing young people with a clear line of sight into work.

Over 13,000 pupils stand to benefit when the studio schools that are open and those in the pipeline hit full capacity.

I would like to thank everyone - those who have opened schools, those who are about to open and those who have applied - for their hard work and dedication in making this happen. Great credit is also due to our hosts today, the Studio Schools Trust, for the valuable advice and support they have provided along the way.

Early insights

It’s still relatively early days, but work carried out by my officials, looking into your experiences, has been very encouraging.

You told us that the input of employers is a key selling point; with pupils feeling confident that work placements will help them find a job. And with employers starting to see studio schools as a resource for growing their future workforce and reporting that studio schools pupils, with their early exposure to the workplace, would have an advantage over their peers in the race for jobs.

You told us that parents and pupils greatly value the ‘family’ feel of studio schools, with their small size and personal coaches who can develop strong relationships with students and act early if problems arise. Parents are also finding that they can get through to staff quickly and easily.

You told us that as a result behaviour and attendance appear to be improving - which is all the more impressive when you consider many pupils recruited by studio schools have above average rates of absence and exclusion.

Much of this was brought home to me on my recent visit to the Da Vinci Studio School in Hertfordshire, with its specialism in the highly-prized STEM subjects.

I was really interested to hear what the students had to say about how they’d been attracted by Da Vinci’s fresh, more personal approach. And how they had benefitted greatly from work placements, like the summer placement one young person had organised with GSK, one of the local employers that’s supporting the school.

How such placements had helped them understand what work is about and how this made them reflect on the importance of getting the right qualifications - which was music to my ears.

Because this point about qualifications, and the link to employment, is crucial - especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds or disaffected by education. And when I’ve talked to students at studio schools it is clear that the experience of working in a business has been hugely formative in developing their ambitions and their understanding of the attributes needed to succeed.

We are, of course, as ambitious for studio schools and their students as we are for other schools. We expect them to offer the most demanding vocational qualifications alongside academic core subjects like English, maths and science in line with the highest-performing jurisdictions.

This is vital if we are to give our young people the knowledge and skills to thrive in an increasingly competitive world - our very poor showing in last month’s OECD survey of adult skills was just the latest international comparison to underline the urgency and scale of the challenge we face.

This showed that our school leavers came joint bottom out of 24 countries in the developed world for literacy and 21st out of 24 for numeracy. And that we are the only country in the developed world where our school leavers’ skills are no better than those of their grandparents.

Which is why we’re radically reforming our education system; to restore rigour and credibility to qualifications, to strengthen vocational education and to encourage all schools to do what the very best schools are doing.

New accountability measures

For this to work, we need to be clear about which qualifications help young people get on in life and to be fair about how we assess school performance.

Our new accountability measures at key stage 4 aim to do just that by focusing more on progress, meaning that the achievements of all pupils matter and matter equally - a clear step up from the blunt, unambitious fixation on getting students over the grade C borderline.

Instead, from 2016, all schools, including studio schools, will be judged on the progress each student makes from the end of primary school to securing their best 8 subjects at key stage 4 - which include English and maths, which are double-weighted, 3 EBacc subjects, such as history, geography, the sciences or languages, and 3 other EBacc or rigorous academic or vocational qualifications. So schools will be encouraged to offer a broad curriculum with an academic core.

Other headline measures showing average pupil performance in the best 8, the percentage getting a C grade in English and maths and the proportion achieving the EBacc will also provide a more rounded picture of how schools are faring. And we’re also considering including destination data to show the percentage who move on to work or further study after year 11.

So there’s a real opportunity here, with this stronger emphasis on progress and school intake, for school like yours, with more challenging intakes, to have your achievements properly recognised.

But given that your pupils may have already suffered a dip in performance from key stage 2 to key stage 3, it’s vital that studio schools carry out a robust baseline assessment of all pupils on arrival. This will allow you to demonstrate pupil progress to Ofsted. Fiona will be holding a workshop on the best 8 measure later today, so do feel free to ask her for more details if you wish.

Strengthening vocational education

Progress aside, you must, of course, in the first instance, ensure you offer subjects that count towards the best 8 - something which many of your schools, with their wide range of qualifications, already do.

A snapshot review, by my officials, of 19 studio schools that are open and 7 that are about to open found that almost three-quarters offer at least 8 eligible qualifications.

I know there may be some concerns that some courses you offer won’t count.

But I think it’s right that we do more to recognise the highest-quality qualifications that are proven to help young people progress.

For too long, we’ve seen weak vocational qualifications mushroom under a system that made dubious claims about their currency, driven by perverse incentives that encouraged students to take courses based on how easy they were to pass rather than their value to the individual or employer.

It’s for this reason we’ve taken action, in line with Professor Alison Wolf’s excellent report, to vastly reduce the number of non-GCSE qualifications that count in performance tables, from over 3,000 to 118. And why we’re taking a similar approach for courses aimed at 16- to 19-year-olds.

Earlier this year, we invited exam bodies to submit new qualifications, especially in under-represented sectors. We’ll shortly publish the third annual list of key stage 4 qualifications and the first list of approved level 3 qualifications.

These level 3 qualifications will include new ‘tech levels’ backed by employers that will provide a high-quality equivalent to A levels and count towards the Technical Baccalaureate - a performance measure also made of up a ‘core maths’ qualification and an extended project.

They will be taught from September 2014 with the aim that by 2016, only courses with real credibility among universities and employers will be recognised in performance tables.

I’m sure you will all reflect carefully on the lists of approved qualifications when designing curricula and deciding on timetables for the 2014 to 2015 academic year.

Pupil recruitment

And, in doing so, I would urge you to continue to aim high. This will not only stand you in good stead in the new league tables, but will also help boost recruitment which I know can remain a challenge.

I think it’s fair to say that attracting students at 14 is always going to be an issue - most children don’t usually move school at that age and local schools can be reluctant to lose pupils because it either messes up their finances or they get challenging replacement pupils. So studio schools will have to rely, I believe, mainly on generating local goodwill and will need to travel a bit further to fill their rolls.

Nevertheless, my officials found some really promising examples of successful recruitment in the course of their work - examples that shared quite a few common traits, such as:

  • a proactive approach towards the schools in their area. Despite what I’ve just said about the potential difficulties in recruiting students from schools at 14, those studio schools that have taken the initiative to build these relationships have done noticeably better
  • a dynamic direct marketing strategy to parents and pupils in the media and online
  • and getting a head start - which, for schools that are about to open, means having the principal in place early or working pro bono to drive recruitment

But above all, it emerged that the more aspirational the offer, the greater the appeal to prospective parents and pupils, with specialisms like the prestigious STEM subjects going down well. Strong employer engagement was also found to be a strong asset, but only if the overall offer was aspirational enough.

Conclusion

I’m hugely heartened by this ambition. It blows apart claims - from Simon Cowell or anyone else - that excellence in education doesn’t matter, especially to those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

And it challenges, in the most inspiring way, the absurd gulf that has festered for too long between vocational and academic study. Parents and pupils rightly want the best of both - something which our reforms, to raise standards all around, are addressing and which studio schools are increasingly delivering as they grow in numbers and confidence.

In particular, I know that you have been working hard to get more employers more involved. So it’s great to see these efforts starting to pay off, with extended employer engagement in existing placements as well as greater business input right from the start in new studio schools.

More recent openers are also doing better on recruitment, attracting more pupils from a wider ability range - a testament to the value of them having longer to plan than previous schools.

So there are many grounds to be really optimistic about the future of studio schools.

I’ve been pleased to see the new crop of applications and am looking forward to announcing the next wave of successful projects for opening in September 2015, in the new year.

In encouraging children of all abilities and gifts to aspire and achieve, you are not only providing them with a clear line of sight to work. You’re providing them with a clear line of sight to a better life - a life beyond the circumstances of their birth, beyond the lottery of luck. A life in which, with passion and application, they can truly become masters of their own destiny.

Thank you.