A unique model of learning which gives youngsters an all-encompassing level of education is already paying dividends for its students.
QEStudio has been set up in the grounds of Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, providing pupils up to the age of 18 with a new and varied curriculum which sets them up for a future career in their home town.
In addition to traditional GCSEs and A-levels, students are undertaking ‘professional learning’, working alongside local businesses to prepare for their futures.
Subjects such as engineering, hospitality and social care are providing the teenagers with specific skills with an aim to them giving something back to their community.
When funding changes led to many vocational courses being dropped from school curriculums in recent years, the team at QES decided to come up with a new way of learning for their pupils.
“We came up with the idea of opening a studio school which offered academic and vocational offers,” QEStudio principal Alison Wilkinson said.
“A studio school has practical courses taught alongside local employers with a large amount of input from them.
“The idea of a studio school was totally in line with our philosophy.
“We needed to make it work in a semi-rural area, so we took what we understood about our local area, looked at the Cumbria Enterprise Plan, and created a school that would sit in this area.
“We looked at the demand for young people in areas such as food and hospitality, engineering, arts, sports and leisure, and health and social care.”
QEStudio offers six pathways – arts, food, engineering, conservation, health and social care, and sports.
“This school is about equipping the students with the skills that the community needs to thrive,” Mrs Wilkinson said.
“We are doing our best for young people but also our best for the community. We have got to try and redress the balance.”
Mrs Wilkinson started at QES as curriculum deputy in 1999, and has since progressed to leading the new studio.
“I spent most of that time trying to create a really exciting curriculum that matched the place we live in,” she said.
“A traditional academy curriculum was right for about 70 per cent of our students, but about 30 per cent were really interested in things like agriculture, engineering, arts, apprenticeships, food and textiles.
“These are really important routes into fantastic careers locally.
“The South Lakes is a very particular place. It’s very connected – it’s not a remote rural area, and there are lots of small and very niche employers locally who need young people.
“So we built up a very exciting curriculum – I want to challenge the academic/non-academic concept, because it has a lot of connotations and does nothing to help esteem.
“Instead, we started using terms like professional learning or technical learning.
“While we are providing something for small numbers of vulnerable children, this is not alternative provision, it’s technical vocational experience.
“It’s for children who like to learn in a very practical way.”
QEStudio has been 15 years in the making, but is already proving a popular choice among pupils.
It took in 111 students when it opened last September – 91 in Year 10 and 20 in Year 12 – and at capacity will have 300 across Years 10 to 13, with around 15 on each course.
“Some of the subjects are now over-subscribed,” Mrs Wilkinson said. “We will be at our 300 capacity by the third year of the studio.
“We have now got children coming to us from other schools in Year 10, and we have had children coming in at the age of 14 from home education too.
“The level of trust that the parents and pupils put in us to take that initial leap of faith was incredible.”
Queen Elizabeth School currently has 1,400 students travelling in every day from three counties.
The main site is growing, with an extra Year 7 form being added next year.
“Right from Year 7 parents know that whatever their child might want to do, they can do it here,” Mrs Wilkinson said.
“We are not competing with local colleges, we are offering a combination of courses.”
As well as numerous local businesses, QEStudio has support from Lancaster University and Kendal College.
The school’s official application to the Department for Education was backed by 60 local employers of various sizes.
Students can be working on BTECs alongside A-levels and EPQ qualifications, for university and apprenticeship routes.
They complete their courses with an equivalent of nine GCSEs or three A-levels.
“Every student as part of the curriculum does a bit of learning and enterprise training,” Mrs Wilkinson said.
“We give them the skills to take into a workplace to learn in the workplace.”
Businesses already on board include Hipping Hall at Cowan Bridge and the English Lakes Hotels chain, which operates hotels in Windermere and Ambleside as well as The Midland in Morecambe and Lancaster House Hotel in Lancaster. Other local businesses have since started asking how they can get involved too.
While lessons are currently based in the main school buildings, it is hoped that work will start on a new building on site in April if South Lakeland District Council grant planning permssion later this month.
This would be due to open in April 2019.
QEStudio will initially be inspected every two terms by a DfE monitoring team due to being a new free school, and will then have a full Ofsted in its third year.
“This is a really interesting model, and our belief is that it’s possible on a national scale, to take an outstanding school and broaden the offer for the young people,” Mrs Wilkinson said.
“It has been very liberating for the staff too, a real shot in the arm and a new lease of life for them, which has been great to see.
“We are asking our teachers to work very differently because they are working with local employers and collaborating with other subjects.
“We will also be looking at using the same model that the children use to further the teachers’ training as well, by taking their learning to Masters level using their experiences in school.”