The UK’s education system has two longstanding problems. One is the disengagement of some students who don’t see their education as relevant to their lives. And the other is employers’ dissatisfaction with the job-readiness of school leavers — even when they have solid grades.
The Studio School was designed to address both. It was also specifically designed with best practice on scaling in mind.
It’s an alternative secondary school, for students aged 14 to 19, that includes a curriculum with project-based learning, work with real-world clients, personal coaches for every pupil, and a focus on both academic skills and non-cognitive ones. The idea is that students learn through doing, rather than memorising, and develop workplace skills as well as book smarts.
The Young Foundation, a think tank, came up with the concept in 2006. By 2010, two schools had been opened as pilots. Four schools were approved the next year, and a further 14 the year after that. In retrospect, that was the inflection point. There were political changes, the momentum began to dissipate, and cracks started to appear. Studio Schools continued to open, but others were wobbling and closing.
“The peak in some ways was in 2013,” said David Nicoll, Chief Executive of the Studio Schools Trust until September 2017. “After that, it was more of a struggle.”
A school for scale
The Studio School did everything right in preparing for scale. It had a typical unit cost, a detailed model, a curriculum framework, and an umbrella organisation to support and connect the schools: the Studio Schools Trust.
The network of Studio Schools scaled as a franchise. The trust held the intellectual property rights and trademarks for both the Studio School name and the CREATE skills framework used as a curriculum. Organisations could only set up a Studio School with permission from the trust and the Department for Education (DfE).
Schools looked for several things when considering applications. First, whether the applicants had the necessary educational and management skills. And second, whether they had assessed the local demand, both through engaging with employers and through carrying out market research among prospective parents.
The trust was on hand to help throughout the process. However, once the schools had opened, they were effectively autonomous — the trust had no power over them. Still, it maintained contact with the schools and encouraged communication between them. “From the very start we saw this as a movement: we wanted schools to work with each other, and we facilitated that,” said Nicoll.
The concept was put to the test in 2010 in two pilots, in Luton and Huddersfield. Barely a year later, an evaluation declared that they were a success.
“It was a fairly superficial evaluation: it wasn’t done over any length of time at all,” said Nicoll. “I’m sure that’s not too difficult to work out: the first two opened in 2010, and a year later there were already three or four others being approved. I don’t know why they called it a pilot to be honest. Because by then they had committed to the idea.”
The Studio School movement had the political wind in its sails — and the trust did not want to miss its chance to scale. “We felt that it was a rare window when these schools could be opened, and if we missed it, it would remain a theoretical idea, not a practical one,” said Geoff Mulgan, former CEO of the Young Foundation and now CEO of Nesta. “It presented a dilemma: do you welcome that enthusiasm, or do you say, let’s slow down?”
The DfE and the trust received hundreds of applications to set up Studio Schools. At one time, there were more than 50 Studio Schools, each intended to serve 300 students.
The Studio School was never meant to overhaul the education system. Its goal was to help the substantial minority left disengaged by the more traditional academic approach.
“We didn’t see more than about 100 schools — that was our target,” said Nicoll. “As a proportion of secondary schools, that’s small. But we wanted to influence the practice of other schools. We saw that kind of impact in the long run.”
The movement falters
Early on, it became clear that some Studio Schools were running into trouble. Blemishes that might have been covered up were rudely exposed by the squeeze on public spending following the 2008 financial crisis.
Some of the schools were inherently weak. Their leadership was unconvincing and they struggled severely with recruiting students. That was made more difficult by the fact the schools started at 14, when most kids chose schools at 11. People weren’t looking to move at 14, and weren’t aware of the option.
As schools are funded on a per capita basis, these half-filled Studio Schools were constantly underfunded. This problem was compounded by the loss of a premium for smaller schools. “In 2006, there was a recognition that a smaller school needed more money in per capita terms,” said Nicoll. “But after 2011 the laws changed and schools started to get the same per capita funding whether they had 100 pupils or 10,000.”
All of this meant that resources were stretched thin and the quality of education fell. Schools fell into a downward spiral of being underfunded, performing poorly, and consequently unable to attract the students to garner more funds.
However, a big chunk of the Studio Schools that closed had been sponsored by other education institutions, like the Further Education Colleges. The trust had thought these colleges would provide a sturdy, readymade foundation for a new school, since they already had the management structures and links to employers.
“But they moved from being the ideal foundation to pretty much the worst foundation you could imagine,” said Mulgan. “Often, they were basically bankrupt and facing an almost existential crisis. So even when the studio school was working, as in many cases, a lot better than the parent FE college, they closed down the studio school. We didn’t predict that at all.”
At the time of writing, a third of Studio Schools have closed their doors.
The problems they encountered with funding and recruitment proved intractable because Studio Schools went against the grain of the wider education system. To some extent, this was intended: they recruited students at 14, not 11, and eschewed the questionable obsession with certain metrics, like GCSE results. Both aspects were integral to the Studio School model. It was trying to do something different.
The program’s designers foresaw the problems this would cause, but they underestimated how exacting they would be. The schools were left underfunded, undersubscribed, and unable to prove their impact. With no real authority over the Studio Schools, the trust was powerless to address these problems. But most importantly, it lacked the political heft to drive policy changes to help ride them out.
In 2010, the scheme had had broad political support. So the designers took a risk in scaling early and fast while it lasted. But it quickly became clear the support didn’t run as deep as they thought.
“What we didn’t properly appreciate was that it was quite superficial,” said Nicoll. “It looked like the department had bought into it, because they put X million of capital funding in and had seven civil servants working on it, but actually when they won’t change anything else about this system — and they wouldn’t — it’s not going to be enough.”
Take the problems with recruitment faced by Studio Schools. One challenge was the competitive atmosphere among local schools, who saw that the new Studio School might take their students and thus shave their budgets. “We asked the DfE early on to provide some transitional funding to compensate for the loss of pupils for say, three years, but that was a non-starter,” said Nicoll.
And when the trust tried to prove the Studio Schools’ impact in a way other than GCSE results, they came up short again. “We designed a very rigorous evaluation with Oxford University, which would have used the full panoply of tools and control groups,” said Mulgan. “We were perhaps naive: we assumed that would be fundable. But it turned out not to be.”
The evaluation never happened, because no one could be found to fund it. The trust had ideas, but it was powerless to realise them.
Making the grade
Often, when people talk about scaling up, they are thinking about development: perhaps a deworming program in Kenya, or community health workers in Ethiopia. By contrast, the Studio School was a relatively complex intervention that entered a crowded system, with many competitors and a lot of regulation and oversight. It holds several lessons.
One is getting the level of control right in a franchise model. Here it was very loose — and the performance of the Studio Schools has varied wildly. The application process and the selection of leadership should probably have been more stringent. And if the trust had retained some power over the schools, perhaps it would have been able to address management and funding problems more effectively.
A second lesson surrounds choosing the right moment and speed at which to scale. There was a risk in scaling the model so fast and so early. Sometimes when the right person is in power, it pays to be opportunistic. But it’s a gamble. In this case, Studio Schools’ backers often foresaw the problems — but underestimated their size.
But what the Studio School experiment really underlines is the importance of complementing a program with the system change required to support it. The concept went against the grain of the education system in big and perhaps necessary ways. The idea’s champions underestimated how much this would hurt them. And then they lacked the capacity or the allies to push for changes that could have helped with funding and recruitment.
Still, the remaining Studio Schools appear to have stabilised. Will the gamble pay off? “Sometimes you have to take a long-term view: maybe in 20 years’ time, someone is going to realise we’ve got something wrong in education, and somebody might see the Studio School and decide to expand it,” said Nicoll. “It’s happened before.”
(Picture credit: Pexels)