Revealed: Uncovered emails discuss 'review' of studio schools programme, but DfE still denies it happened

The Department for Education is still denying it conducted a formal review of studio schools – despite FE Week discovering an attempt to cover-up internal emails which openly discussed the existence and timescale of the review.

It was revealed last year that the former academies minister Lord Nash had met with the Studio Schools Trust to “review the concept of studio schools”, according to official minutes. 

However David Nicoll, then chair of the SST which supports and promotes studio schools, claimed that a review was “definitely not on the agenda of any meeting I attended”. 

Under the freedom of information act, FE Week requested all written correspondence between ministers and employees at the Department for Education and the SST from September 1, 2016, to March 6, 2018. Many of the emails between Mr Nicoll and officials were released but were heavily redacted.

However, FE Week has seen full copies of the documents and discovered that many of the blacked out sentences mentioned a “review” of studio schools.

The small, vocationally-focused 14- to-19 studio schools have struggled to survive due to poor Ofsted ratings and low pupil numbers, with 26 closing or planning to close since the scheme was introduced in 2010 – despite millions of pounds of government investment.

One previously redacted message showed that, on February 16, 2017, Mr Nicoll asked the DfE if he could postpone a meeting with Lord Nash “since it seems that the review will not have been completed in time”. Four days later Mr Nicoll said he would be “back in touch as soon as we know what is happening with the review timing”.

On March 10, Mr Nicoll emailed: “I thought it was time to ask again if there was any progress and/or timetable you could share regarding the studio school review. I appreciate that this may seem impatient, but I am fending off enquiries on a daily basis at the
moment”. 

Three days later he received a response from a government official saying “we are making progress and hope to be in a position to make a decision shortly”.

All mentions of a review were redacted in the government’s official FOI response. The DfE stated the sentences were withheld under FOI rules because ministers and officials “need the freedom to make decisions based on the best advice available, including
correspondence from outside bodies, without fear of this advice being disclosed”. 

When asked about the legitimacy of the DfE’s redaction response, Maurice Frankel, director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “They are trying to conceal that 18 months ago there was a review, or some other word they prefer, and they are trying to keep it from the public.” 

Asked about the review in the light of the redacted emails, a spokesperson for the DfE said: “There has been no formal review of studio schools and we have never set out the expectation that there is one.” 

The spokesperson added that while studio schools “can be popular, we know that there have been challenges which is why we will continue to look into their performance”. 

The DfE would not give any further details about what the “monitoring” of the programme consisted of.  Mr Nicoll could not be reached for comment.