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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 2012

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.

Anonymous 3 December 2012, 20.42

Best reason to not have a child I’ve read all year. Tragic affair, our young people deserve better.

Claire 4 December 2012, 12.36

Who will go to these schools? Who decides which children are suitable?
If it’s the children who are disaffected with learning it might be ok – as long as they’re not exploited or working for nothing – to learn about the world of work and those skills directly needed in work, rather than some of the national curriculum stuff which I can see some children not valuing.
But if as I suspect, it’s going to be working class children being encouraged to do this – whilst leaving the universities to their ‘betters’ (ie the wealthy) then it’s a Big Fat No!. Actually I’m so suspicious that it IS a Big Fat No.

Lauren Foster 4 December 2012, 21.44

Sounds like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

Terry Russell 5 December 2012, 15.41

What next? Lower the school-leaving age to fourteen (for non-academic students, i.e. working class kids) and provide “work-houses” for them?

Phil Smith 6 December 2012, 00.15

About time! These so-called ‘young people’ have been a dead weight for far too long. It’s about time that every single non-producing group of so-called ‘people’ be dragged — by their overly long and scruffy hair if need be — into the workplace and made productive. After the scrounging unemployed and chiselling so-called ‘disabled’ people got the tough love they required, I for one was PRAYING the government would see sense and start taking the plan to its logical conclusion.

There are vast opportunities just waiting to be explored. The so-called ‘elderly people’ with their pensions. Should they be given handouts just because they’ve reached a certain age and paid into some kind of national insurance scheme? To hell with that! Get them back into the workplace. If they’ve worked so hard before they’ll have a far easier time of it.

And what about the worst of the spongers? The under-4s who get everything handed to them on a plate, often mashed up so they don’t even have to go through the bother of chewing their food. I don’t see why I as a taxpayer should have to subsidise their malingering a moment longer. It’s time to clamp down on the lot of ’em.

Ron Graves 6 December 2012, 11.29

@Terry Russell

No need to worry about workhouses for teens – they’ll be reserved for all the homeless chronically sick and disabled people who’ve been stripped of the means to keep a roof over their heads.

mommagoth 6 December 2012, 11.53

Phil Smith, i hope you are joking or speaking tongue in cheek,if not you are a disgrace as a human being,

Electric frog 6 December 2012, 12.23

I do believe Phil Smith was being sarcastic. However, with the current government I could quite imagine his comments becoming prophetic!

Phil Smith 7 December 2012, 03.56

Yep, sarcasm as Electric Frog noted. I thought I’d best end the Daily Mail-reader style rant before suggesting workfare placement for those sperms that didn’t have the gumption to fertilise eggs like the rest of us hard-working, law-abiding… etc, etc, etc, bring back National Service, compulsory short back and sides, Victorian values, etc.

Jay Evans 7 December 2012, 15.45

What a shock to hear about these schools – I can say with hand on heart I had not heard of them before reading this article!
This country is going backwards with the damned Coalition Government, (Actually, that’s not entirely true about the Government as the Tories are giving the orders and the Libs are carrying them out), and before long we will have no way to eat, sleep, wash, clothe or house ourselves – so it will be workhouses eventually. I am one of the disabled and know that we are suffering badly for daring to have a disability in the first place, but also for daring to accept scraps from OUR (the taxpayers) money! It’s humiliating to have to feel like this, it’s humiliating to be branded a scrounger!
These schools should be shut down immediately – they are just another way of cheap labour and certainly of child labour – and also a threat to people who have jobs with these “companies” as it’s better to pay nothing, or the least amount of money but get the work done for nothing or less wages. Come on people, wake up and smell the coffee – so many are now seeing this UN-ELECTED Government for what they are so do something! It’s not as though you have to fear about losing your jobs – they’re sneaking their way up to that pretty damn soon!

mandm 7 December 2012, 20.29

Well this is disturbing BUT wtf did you expect from the them.Thing is this workfare has beed going on for a long time now and NOBODY in the labour party has said a bloody word to stop it.Now we see that the sick and disabled are being forced in to it and the sanctions they face are more draconian than the able bodied as there is no time limit on it if they are sanctioned.
SO THINK ON THIS we now have a system that forces the sick and disabled to be MANDATED on to it..NO IF’S NO BUT’S OR YOU WILL FACE A CUT and now they are roping in the kids and what does anyone in opposition say…..sweet FA and now we here that Goldman Sachs are involved in the whole system through the S.I B wheeze…social in vestment bonds..YOU couldnt make this crap up.The new slavery eh…You are only the opposition if you actually oppose…

Mike 8 December 2012, 11.25

I too have not heard of this corruption before.
Are these kids being taught the facts of (working) life such as “Minimum Wages”, “Health & Safety”, contracts, good working conditions and soon, or are they being diddled out of all these things that the working man has fought for over the last 100 or so years which is what I suspect.
Also, I was under the impression that the minimum working age had been raised to 16 quite a few years ago, even if they are not being paid?

Joanne Davison 9 December 2012, 00.20

Iv e visited out local NHS studio school and found it excellent. Kids have a choice to go there at 14 or continue in their own school and join at 16. They can study level 1,2&3 qualifications and go on to uni afterwards. The work based learning prepare kids for the world of work just as a Saturday job would but with the extra support of a learning environment, the school Has state if the art technology and works closely withthe local hospital and other schools. It is a welcome relief for those children who do not thrive in a school environment but who want a chance of a career in a sector of their choice and a useful taster before they jump into a degree, there us less chance of trainee nurses or social workers dropping out of their courses as a result of bring able to try out the jobs first. I think you should go along to a studio school and look for yourself.

Keith Povall 9 December 2012, 11.14

At least I saw the humour Phil.

mandm 9 December 2012, 18.41

Well if these schools are so good JD above why is this system not being implemented in main stream schools..what part of class division dont you get.
Goves idea of plebucation……
School is not just about preparing kids for the world of work it is about preparing them for the world in which we all live not just about the TORY vision of it.

Marcin 9 December 2012, 18.48

Oh, you mean they’ve reintroduced the secondary modern?

Steve A 9 December 2012, 19.34

This is the first I have heard of this too, however, I recently returned from living in France and they have a similar scheme there. Both my step sons go to these schools there, one to learn Motor Mechanics and the other Agriculture. The difference in France is they are run by the education service though and you have to really fight to get your child in, It’s more akin to an apprenticeship and the kids usually go on to take up apprenticeships straight from school in their chosen field. Unlike the UK it is likely that there will be jobs for them to go to at the end of it. In general it is the kids who are not academic or have behavioural problems who go to these schools My two lads were reformed characters once they got in.

beccy 9 December 2012, 20.10

@ Claire 4/12/12
the disafected? most ‘disaffected’ kids are the ones who the current system fails, so hearding them into slavery is pretty much what the articles about, so well done you! the ‘disaffected’ end up being th ‘creative’ ones and where would be be without visionaries, artists and activists?!
@ Phil Smith
let’s see what education did for you?

A Nazi, a priest and a racist jump off of a building at the same time. who hits the ground first?

Who Cares

Anonymous 9 December 2012, 23.56

before jumping to conclusions where are the references for this? I’m sitting on the fence about this article and want to decide weather the references for this are suitable before I decide.

Anonymous 9 December 2012, 23.58

they hit the ground at the same time its basic physics

Anonymous 10 December 2012, 18.23


Jay 10 December 2012, 18.28

Lots of info here:


Samuel Gradgrind 10 December 2012, 18.50

What a damn good idea!

If I did this, I’d not only get a free workforce for the mill but I’d not even have to find any money for feeding the little buggers!

Finally someone in the UK has had the gumption to set this country back on the road to competing with India. I can see a great revival of British industry and British textiles going forward.

Dan 10 December 2012, 20.04

I wonder if I can still get a vasectomy on the NHS?

Robert 13 December 2012, 22.49

Well well lots of people have not heard of these schools basically started by labour who offered large companies the chance to take over schools and then do with them what you want, so long as you pay for the idea in cold cash.

My small backwater had one school actually set up a nice counter and cash machine to the Plebs could learn to use them ready for the larger market and retailers like Tesco Asda. it failed and the kids refused to attend the school and parents agreed I know my daughter went to another school after the holidays.

Labour Tories it’s getting harder to tell the difference.

Ian Joiner 19 December 2012, 17.34

Jesus Christ, what a mess is what used to be our Education system.
If only there was a political party who would demolish “Academies” and these “Studio Schools” and start to re-invest in our human capital – without students having to pay for it.

Mummygirl 26 April 2013, 08.07

My daughters have always attended Altrincham Girls Gram in Trafford.
A couple of years ago it got made into an Academy. No proper consultation with parents. Parents didn’t seem to realise what it meant for the future of their school.
They managed to be bribed by a private firm building a new sixth form building for them, at no cost…???
We get nothing for nothing in life as we know!
I then realised on the top floor of this building a new Academy Teacher Training was to be initiated or carried out using carrots of money to attract graduates from applying to a local PGCE course at perhaps Didsbury. Where instead numbers admitted to teaching courses are being gradually reduced. Over the same period.
This is TRAINING and NOT EDUCATING our children to become just compliant ROBOTS!!!!!!!!!!

Rebecca 2 May 2013, 13.54

This is the first I’ve heard of Studio Schools and I’m shocked! I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with vocational courses and education, but firmly hold that children wishing to take these paths should still have access to the ‘more traditional’ curriculum as well – I’m always amazed when the things I was taught that I’d thought I’d never need to know come back to remind me they ARE relevant. Furthermore, how do we even expect a person under the age of 16 to fully know what they want to do in life? I’m 20 on my first year of a BA and still don’t have a clear plan.

It seems to me that the only aspirations our younger students will have in Studio Schools is to work harder to get higher up in the capitalist system of the business they’re ‘educated’ by… Doesn’t seem right to me.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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