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What price pedagogy?

October 7th, 2011 by Jenny Hughes

Have just posted the video on studio schools in the UK. These Studio Schools people are practicing what we have all been preaching for years, they really are walking the talk and making the rhetoric a reality.

So why am I cynical? Geoff Mulgan says, crucially, “within the public system and publicly funded but independently run”. This presses all my buttons.

Trust schools

The Studio Schools are trust schools. Trust schools are local authority maintained schools and draw down public money from the local authority according to the same formula as any other community school.

However, trust schools are independent – owned by a trust with charitable status, run by their own governing body, employing their own staff, setting their own admissions criteria and owning their own land and buildings but with no accountability to the tax payers who fund them. And the publicly owned assets that were transferred to them, they are now in a position to sell.

The trust schools are having the best of both worlds, by tapping into the Local Authority for advice and support for ongoing maintenance, yet being independent from them in terms of funding and ownership of the assets. This, in my book, is called having your cake and eating it!

Whether or not the Studio Schools are doing a good job, the fact remains that I am paying – and I have no democratic channels, through my elected representatives to have any say in how my money is spent.

Moreover, the teachers in those schools do not benefit from the collective bargaining power that their unions have with the local authority public employers, their support staff (notwithstanding TUPE regulations) do not have any nationally agreed pay rates or conditions of service.

…and who pays?

I would also like to see the costing model. Mulgan assures us that Studio Schools run at ‘no extra cost’ – but what exactly does that mean? No extra cost to whom? Are we saying that there is no increase in gross expenditure on the education system (possibly) or are we saying the unit costs per pupil are no higher (unlikely)?

I would not be working for Pontydysgu if I was not interested in pedagogy but in my previous life I was a government officer responsible for running the education system in a large local authority and, significantly, managing the budget – endlessly balancing the statutory responsibility for providing quality education for EVERY child whilst also making the sums add up..

Although both trust and community schools are treated the same in terms of distribution of the formula budget, there are significant savings to be made by sharing services and resources between schools, rationalizing provision in particular areas and co-ordinating activities. The Studio Schools have opted out of this but thanks to the voluntary co-operation that exists between the community schools and the savings effected by their efforts, they, like other trust schools, reap the benefits. If trust schools such as the Studio Schools spread, there will ultimately be even less of a pot from which the local authority is able to distribute resources.

Back door to privatisation

Finally, I will stick my neck out and say you cannot run a school for the 300 pupils that Mulgan quoted at the same unit cost you can run one for 1000 pupils. This is not to say that large schools are, in terms of quality of education, better or worse than smaller schools – but they are cheaper. So if we grow the Studio School model in the future, we have to run small, technology-intensive schools ‘at no extra cost’ – presumably at no extra cost to the public sector. So where the issue of trust schools becomes even more entangled and contentious is with the introduction of Private Finance Initiatives – but that is the basis for a whole new editorial rant. Watch this space!!

Pedagogy v democracy

For the moment I will just conclude by saying firstly, I don’t actually think that Geoff Mulgan’s ideas around Studio Schools are in any way new or different. Learning through doing, through real projects, in groups, using technologies and so on have been part of mainstream thinking for years. What Studio Schools have done is make it happen. Ten out of Ten. Secondly, I think every school can be as good as a Studio School – we have the teachers with the skills and the enthusiasm to do it. What we don’t have are the funds to do it with or the commitment to public sector capital investment in community schools. And the solution is not the creation of unaccountable trust schools as a back door route to privatisation

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