Business-backed university technical colleges to open next year

Jeevan Vasagar and Jessica Shepherd, The Guardian

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.

Known as university technical colleges, the schools include one in Newcastle with a focus on engineering; one in Liverpool, specialising in life sciences and backed by the pharmaceutical firm Novartis, and one in Plymouth backed by the Royal Navy and Babcock, which manufactures defence equipment.

Research in Motion, which developed the BlackBerry smartphone, will be one of the business partners of a school in Buckinghamshire, which is also being backed by Hewlett Packard and Cisco.

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, will include a Steiner school in Frome, Somerset, a primary in Brighton which will be bilingual in English and Spanish and a school in east London being set up by Peter Hyman, a former adviser to Tony Blair.

A sixth form college, the London Academy of Excellence, is being backed by a group of private schools led by Brighton College. Eton college will supply a teacher to the English department, who will help prepare teenagers for university admissions.

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."

The first 24 free schools opened last month. They 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 relatively small number of schools being approved is in stark contrast to Gove's promise during the election campaign of "a superb new school in every community".

Scope for expansion of the free schools programme is limited by pressures on the Department for Education's capital budget. There is a long queue of existing schools awaiting rebuilds after the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future and a massive repairs backlog.

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 DfE spokesman said: "We make no apologies for only approving the very best free school proposals."

A further set of free schools aimed at children with special needs or behaviour problems will be announced later in the year.

The next wave of free schools include one being set up by parents and teachers in Warrington after the borough council closed the local secondary school which had a falling roll.

Sir Iain Hall, who will be the head of King's school in Warrington, says it will be a "boutique comprehensive" with just 120 children in each year to emphasise a personal relationship between staff and pupils. Hall said: "The independent sector gives their pupils self-esteem, I want to inject that into state schools."

The free school proposers are hoping to use the existing secondary school site, but the council says it has "other plans" for this location.

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 Wapping school, an 11-16 secondary, will have an extended day with compulsory afterschool activities, including setting up a newspaper, playing football and polo classes.


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