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Students at The Studio, Liverpool

The rise of the alternative education

As free schools, studio schools and UTCs grow in number, there are more choices than ever. Editor Stephanie Broad investigates

Posted by Stephanie Broad | October 20, 2015 | Teaching

In September, eleven new UTCs opened across the UK, giving 14 to 18 year-olds a combination of academic and vocational study and covering much-needed professions, including engineering, IT and health sciences. Aiming to fill the ‘skills gap’ in the UK economy, these new schools bring the number of UTCs in the country to 39.

The new schools can be found in all corners of the UK, from South Devon UTC to MediaCityUK in Salford and Humber UTC in Scunthorpe.

This is a sign of a growing appetite for alternatives to traditional local authority school and post-16 options – including UTCs, studio schools and free schools. As of January 2015, 2.7 million pupils were enrolled in academies (including free schools, UTCs and studio schools) and, following the new openings across the country, this number can only rise.

Educators and indeed employers are increasingly aware that it's not just academic qualifications that young people need, but particular qualities and practical skills.

Vocational training helps students to prepare for the world of work

Free schools can be set up by parents, teachers, charities, businesses and other groups, but are funded by the government. Approved in the Academies Act 2010, the intention of free schools and academies was to give schools freedom over teaching and drive up standards by increasing competition with existing schools. There are over 400 free schools in the UK and David Cameron recently announced 18 more had been given the green light.

Studio schools are a vocational option for students over 14. The Studio Schools Trust states on their website: “They are small schools for 300 students; and with year-round opening and a nine to five working day, they feel more like a workplace than a school.” The schools can now be found from Plymouth to Newcastle, with many specialising in creative and digital media. 

The Studio Liverpool, a sixth form college specialising in digital media and gaming, aims to respond to the changing world faster than the traditional education system can. Their specialist training has even lead to a student winning a Bafta gaming award earlier this year. 

Student Jack Mills with his BAFTA-winning game, Utopia of Rhythm

Shaun McInerney, principal of the school, says: “At The Studio, we are forging a new landscape for education. Our students develop expertise and broaden their horizons by working with business mentors both in the classroom, and on the job during placements. Our school day runs from 9-5, mirroring the world of work and our industry standard facilities bring our students to the forefront of the digital sector. Education is changing, and we are ahead of the game.  

“As a small school of only 300 students, The Studio has evolved into an inclusive community for like-minded young people who are passionate about succeeding in the digital world. We operate in a different way to a conventional school; addressing the growing gap between the skills and knowledge that young people require to succeed, and those that the current education system provides. Our first Ofsted report underpins our ethos, commenting that ‘Students display a thirst for knowledge and a respect for their teachers, whom they describe as colleagues.’ 

“Our industry partners share our vision to nurture the next generation of creative entrepreneurs and are committed to supporting our students with mentorship, specialist workshops, work placements and securing their first jobs after graduating from The Studio. 

“The pathways and support that we offer has proven to be extremely popular within the Liverpool region and our graduates have gone on to do incredible things including winning a Young Game Design BAFTA. Our first cohort of graduates accepted university courses across the country in games development, business, marketing and more, secured job offers locally in the Baltic Triangle, accepted apprenticeship opportunities within growing tech companies and some students even launched their own start-ups. We are committed to ensuring that all our students progress onto appropriate pathways and the close proximity of our partners and their ongoing support makes all of this possible. The future is definitely bright for our students.” 

UTC MediaCity recently opened

For those looking for a pathway into the armed forces, the Military Preparation College helps 16-19 year olds throughout the UK to increase their vocational skills and improve their personal qualities. It achieves this through a unique mix of physical training and ‘active learning.’ 

There are now 17 branches of the College across the UK. The colleges are free to attend and operate on a roll-on, roll-off basis, all providing an environment in which learners can make a fresh start. Through an active curriculum that places a big emphasis on character development and life skills, learners are encouraged to achieve their individual goals. Learners leave the College with increased self-confidence, improved understanding of the importance of a healthy lifestyle, enhanced academic abilities and a broader understanding of the opportunities available to them. 

Helping young learners get fit and ready for employment, the Motivational Preparation College for Training (MPCT) group, which includes the Military Preparation College, has enabled over 2,000 young men and women to enlist in the Armed Forces and has helped over 4,000 others to explore further employment, education and training opportunities. In 2014 Ofsted rated it as ‘Outstanding’ in every area. The education and training organisation looks to inspire young learners to reach their full potential. 

“Teamwork, personal pride, physical and mental robustness, duty, community spirit, confidence and humility are the qualities that we endeavour to teach our learners,” states Huw Lewis MBE, Founder and Managing Director at The Military Preparation College. “By using a holistic approach to training and focusing on what are essential skills for employment, learners find that they are able to achieve their goals.”    

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