Workfare comes to the classroom

While academies have drawn the headlines, the government’s new ‘studio schools’ are making children work for corporate sponsors. Alex Diaz reports

December 1, 2012
4 min read

The new academic year saw the launch of another 12 ‘studio schools’, the work-based sister project of academies. By next year there will be 30, with more on the way. Launched quietly in 2010, studio schools allow private businesses to run state education for 14 to 19-year-olds with learning ‘on the job’ and not in the classroom. For under‑16s, that means unpaid work for corporate sponsors as part of the curriculum.

For education secretary Michael Gove, studio schools are a manifestation of the government’s pledge to teach children what employers want them to learn. ‘I am committed to responding to calls from employers for an education system that develops the future workforce with the skills they need,’ he has said. As such, they are backed by business lobbies such as the Confederation of British Industry, the Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors.

Since they are designed to meet the needs of sponsor businesses, some of the specialist courses they provide include catering, manufacturing and social care. They also reflect working life, with long days and short holidays. They teach a basic version of the national curriculum, which is taught outside of the classroom and through work-based projects. While on the one hand the opportunity for students to combine academic study with work experience may give them a competitive edge when applying for certain jobs in the future, this watered-down curriculum is equally likely to narrow students’ career prospects.

Almost any business can set up a studio school by paying a voluntary subscription of just £8,000 to the government. In return, the government builds and maintains a school, but the power to run the school remains firmly in the hands of private sponsors. National Express, GlaxoSmithKline, Sony, Ikea, Disney, Michelin, Virgin Media and Hilton Hotels are just some of the corporate players who have bought into the scheme.

So what is in it for these investors? First, they hope that graduates of studio schools will work for them in the future – the taxpayer is paying to train their future employees. Second, pupils must spend up to 40 per cent of their school lives working for these companies. Predictably, these sponsor firms only pay the minimum wage – and that’s only for their over-16 students.

Under-16s, meanwhile, must work at least four hours a week for local sponsors unpaid. It is perhaps ironic that a system that is supposed to teach children what it is like to work in the real world does not pay them to do a job. Moreover, the introduction of cheap child labour into the workplace is likely to drive down wages for adult workers doing similar jobs.

For NUT general secretary Christine Blower, ‘studio schools are an unnecessary additional type of school within a system that already has too much diversity’. The teachers’ union believes studio schools represent a threat to local education provision because they fragment neighbouring schools’ funding and admissions arrangements, their approval system and application process lacks transparency, and they have been set up with little consultation or evidence of demand or even effectiveness. The NUT does not see how students at these schools will experience a broad and balanced curriculum because most of them focus on a narrow range of vocational subjects beyond the basic core of English, maths and science. Studio schools are also not required to employ qualified teachers, or adhere to national pay arrangements.

The small size of studio schools (which usually hold just 300 students) means class sizes are smaller. But making class sizes smaller does not require corporate sponsorship of schools. Moreover, since the intention is to appeal to students who fail to thrive in a conventional school setting, studio schools may just turn into a way to remove under-achieving students from mainstream education and stream them into vocational pathways at an early age, instead of helping them to improve academically.

Studio schools raise a wider question concerning education: what is it for? Employers have already told university graduates that they no longer require so many workers with degrees. Now they are suggesting that pupils as young as 14 would be better off working for them for free than going to school. With studio schools, education is increasingly becoming indistinguishable from preparation for limited-horizon work. Their rise represents another step in the creeping corporate takeover of our public services.

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