Flagship free school STEM Academy changes hands after damning Ofsted report

Dr Tony Sewell at the event held at Google's HQ in Bloomsbury

Dr Tony Sewell at the event held at Google’s HQ in Bloomsbury in 2013

The PR buzz around STEM Academy Tech City’s first open day, held on the 19th floor of Google’s Bloomsbury headquarters, was a feast for the senses.

Free snacks, free pens, loud music, branded tote bags even a dance performance were all on display to promote the school, which was founded and sponsored by the now-defunct not-for-profit Skills & Development Agency, and opened to 150 students in 2013.

The 16-19 free school would be a stone’s throw from Tech City, specialising in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), boasting links to Old Street’s burgeoning Silicon Roundabout.

“Who here wants a lot of money?” asked Dr Tony Sewell from the podium as he addressed the crowd of teens. An apprehensive scattering of hands went up as the founder of the charity Generating Genius and school trustee assured them: “STEM will give you that route through – you will be well off”.

Next up, Google’s Shuvo Saha told students that a STEM Academy education could “lead you to a career at a place like Google”.

And finally, founding principal John O’Shea promised “target-based learning” and “swift intervention” for those falling behind. O’Shea left STEM Academy after just one year.

Today, STEM’s website still boasts a roster of “partners” including Google, Deloitte and Deutsche Bank – all of whom, it says, are “keen to meet” STEM Academy students and “offer work placements and mentoring”.

But according to Ofsted, none of this has panned out. In March, STEM’s first Ofsted report labeled the school inadequate in all categories. 

Inadequate support

The damning report concluded that senior managers provided “inadequate support” to help students succeed, and reiterated a failure to establish meaningful relationships with employers that had been central to the school’s ethos.

“Teachers and managers do not have a sufficient number of links with local and regional employers to enable more than a small minority of learners to undertake
work experience.”

Last month, STEM Academy was voluntarily taken over by Aspirations Academies Trust, which runs 12 other academies.

Steve Kenning, chief executive of Aspirations, believes being a stand-alone free school brought fundamental limitations.

“The level of organisation was lacking,” says Kenning of the STEM Academy before the takeover. “There were very few work linkages. We have real contacts.”

Big customers

From September 2014, it will be known as Tech City College – but connecting students to big companies will remain a priority.

Kenning insists Aspirations’ ‘contacts’ such as Deloitte need young people for market research purposes, so are sure to offer placements.

“Every industry needs to know what its customers think, and young people are big customers. This motivates companies.”

Kenning says under Aspirations’ model, students will spend one day a week working on “real life projects”, and startups will be offered discounted desk space on condition they work with students “at times”.

Virginie Ramond, Chair of Governors, at STEM Academy Tech City said: “At the time of Ofsted’s visit to the academy, work was already underway to further grow and develop STEM Academy Tech City’s work experience programme and we have seen very positive and promising developments around employer and industry engagement from the academy this year.”

STEM declined to comment on how many students it placed in work experience, or Ofsted’s conclusion that the school had been unable to successfully incorporate work experience into study programmes.

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