Business-backed Technical Colleges on Rise in the UK

A new wave of comprehensive schools backed by firms including the developers of the BlackBerry, Toshiba, Boeing and Rolls Royce will open in England next year as part of a new generation of vocational schools in which businesses will help shape the curriculum, writes Jeevan Vasagar and Jessica Shepherd at the Guardian.

Following the lead of Batley Grammar school, in West Yorkshire, which was one of the first batch of free schools that opened last month. The schools are intended to tackle divides in England’s education system, including a concentration of the weakest schools in the poorest areas. But analysis commissioned by the Guardian has found that the first 24 are tilted towards areas dominated by middle-class households.

The schools, for 14- to 19-year-olds, are sponsored by universities, and the firms will help provide training that meets their requirements for skilled workers.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, announced the opening of the vocational schools in a Commons statement which also confirmed that 63 free schools are expected to open next year.

The new free schools, which are independent of local authorities and set up in response to parent demand, include –

A Steiner school in Frome, Somerset

A primary in Brighton which will be bilingual in English and Spanish

A school in Buckinghamshire, which will be backed by Hewlett Packard, Cisco and Research in Motion – which developed the Blackberry smartphone.

And a school in east London being set up by Peter Hyman, a former adviser to Tony Blair.

The London Academy of Excellence, to open in Newham, will have a selective admissions policy – requiring five As at GCSE. The sixth form college will have an academic focus, limiting pupils to 12 “hard” subjects including maths, physics and history.

Richard Cairns, the headmaster of Brighton College said:

“We’re not trying to cream off the best and brightest of the East End. We’re trying to identify a bigger pool of talent. There are lots of bright children doing the wrong GCSEs, not being motivated properly, and dropping out of school at 16.”

Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network, the charity which advises groups wanting to set up free schools, said:

“We are delighted that so many high quality groups will be setting up new state schools in 2012. However based on the calibre and volume of proposals we have seen, we think that the DfE has been over cautious in some of their assessments. As the policy develops we hope to see a significant increase in the number of groups being approved, especially those with highly innovative proposals.”

A Department of Education spokesman said:

“We make no apologies for only approving the very best free school proposals.”

Pinaki Ghoshal, assistant director of children and young people’s services at Warrington borough council, questioned the need for a new school:

“Our local intelligence, which has been shared with the Department for Education, indicates there is insufficient demand to justify the proposed free school in Woolston. There are existing unfilled places in neighbouring schools and the opening of this institution could have further repercussions for these schools.”

A parent-led campaign for a new school in Wapping, backed by the actor Helen Mirren, is among those in the latest wave. The school, an 11-16 secondary, will have an extended day with compulsory afterschool activities, including setting up a newspaper, playing football and polo classes.