8 Sep '13

News Talking heads: why I'm part of the studio school revolution in education

Dan Rosser tells Emily Drabble about the studio schools he leads – and why relationships are the key to a successful school

How did you end up becoming a headteacher?

I was a youth worker for several years, then I worked as a TA in a secondary school before I trained as a teacher and taught in inner-city London, specialising in geography and RE. My experience in those early years has really informed the work I do now, I got to experience the education system from all sides. I loved class teaching but also relished the opportunity to work at a more strategic level and have a wider impact on more children, so it felt natural to progress into leadership.

What were your next steps?

I worked as assistant head at Villiers School and then deputy head at Dormers Wells High School, both in Ealing, before leaving London and becoming deputy head at Ashlawn school in Warwickshire.

What were the greatest lessons you learnt prior to becoming a head?

I suppose the biggest was that the essential key for an effective school is relationships. That means strong relationships between all the different stakeholders at a school – students, parents, teachers, TAs and everyone else. I've learnt by observing best practice and also by doing. Relationships can only work if you make time for people. That can be sacrificed in the fast-paced environment of a school but if a headteacher can't invest time and listen to staff and all the other stakeholders in the school then it's doomed.

You are now executive principal of the two Midland Studio Colleges, one of which opened last year and one this month. Can you tell us a bit about studio schools?

There are 30 in the country so far, but many more are in planning stage. A studio school is small, Midland Studio College Hinckley will have just 300 students, and the majority of learners join us at 14, some at 16. We offer a new way of learning which really prepares young people to be in a strong position to succeed in the workplace. Our learners study a range of GCSEs and choose to specialise in either engineering, health and social care or business. Most of our students have a strong idea of which area they want to go into but don't know the specific job and we help them try before they buy. We do a 9 to 5 day and run for 40 weeks a year. There's no uniform, instead a dress code. All students have their own personal coach.

How important is work experience to the school timetable?

It's huge. All our year 10 and year 11 students do one day a week work experience and our year 12 and 13s do two days a week with partner employers. So many adults have drifted into their career by chance, but our students can make an informed choice. Our curriculum is influenced by employers and all students have a personal coach to help them achieve the appropriate range of qualifications and skills that employers are looking for.

How is your school funded?

By the Department of Education, in the same way as an academy. We are part of the Midland Academy Trust, set up and owned by North Warwickshire & Hinckley College of further education, and we are sponsored by the college. All studio schools are sponsored by an FE college, and it's such a benefit to have their experience as well as to be able to use their marvellous facilities. The college is central to what we are about.

Tell us more about how these personal coaches work?

This is something that's quite unique to studio schools – every learner has their own personal coach, it's solution focussed coaching based on a business model. The coach is the primary contact with parents/carers and the employer, tracks and monitors the learner's progress and of course gets to know the student and their specific learning needs and goals really well. All our coaches are graduates, some have worked as TAs, others have a background in industry and have done life coaching qualifications. For me, it's the passion for learning that really counts. In fact we call our students learners at the studio school rather than students and are very clear that everyone in the school is a learner. As executive principal, I am a learner and I have a personal coach (a retired headteacher). We don't have line managers we have coaching, all my staff have coaches and all my staff are coaches.

What impact does the way the school works have on students?

They talk about it being a privilege to be here, and especially to have grown-up relationships. They know we treat them as young adults and will support them with the transition to adulthood, and they step up to the mark. Some need more support than others but through the personal coaches we genuinely offer wrap around care.

Have the longer hours and less holidays made recruiting staff difficult?

No, just the opposite. Teachers always work beyond usual hometime and during their holidays anyway. We are more up front and never have a meeting after 5pm, we build meetings and planning into the school day. Recruiting has been a wonderful and unique experience, having that blank canvas and being able to handpick my staff has been a huge attraction for me.

How do teachers find working in this new environment?

So many teachers are disillusioned with conveyor belt education and most teachers are in the job to make a difference to young people's lives not just churn out GCSE results. Teachers want to share and collaborate – that's why they went into teaching in the first place. I think we've created a very transparent and trusting environment where innovation and collaboration go hand in hand. It's back to relationships again. Through personal coaching we can support staff and help them create a healthy work-life balance. No one suffers in silence here.

Could other schools take on board some of the aspects of studio schools?

Definitely. I would love to see the personal coaches model rolled out across all secondary schools to raise self-esteem, self-awareness and consequently achievement – for everyone in the school. As a multi academy trust we are always sharing best practice and ideas across the schools and I look forward to seeing elements of the studio school model being developed further across the partnership.

What's on your to do list?

Well, we've just opened a new college, the Midland Studio College Nuneaton. I'll be overseeing the strategic development of both. I'll also be growing our connections with universities and employer partners. We're part of the Phoenix group with Coventry University, whose professors will also be guest lecturing with us over the coming year. We are also doing a research project with Oxford University.

Dan Rosser is executive principal of two studio schools, the Midland Studio College Hinckley and the Midland Studio College Nuneaton.

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