Why now may be the right time to launch a national open school

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By Anne Nicholls

 In 1969 a pioneering educational experiment was born – the Open University. At the time     it was a radical experiment. But it has since blossomed into a much-loved national institution that has enabled millions to gain access to higher education that would have otherwise been excluded. Furthermore, its OU50 celebrations won best education campaign in the latest CIPR Excellence Awards.

Fast forward 51 years and we could be seeing the birth of its offspring – a national open school.

Although a distance learning system for schools has been mooted in the past the idea has gained legs since the start of lockdown. In a Guardian article in May Sir Tim Brighouse (former London commissioner for schools) and Bob Moon (Emeritus Professor of Education at the Open University) made the case for a national open school to be led by the BBC and the Open University. The vision is to create a free-standing, independent institution offering   self-learning courses, with tutor support and online networking. This idea is nothing new.  The Open School of British Columbia in Canada and Victoria’s Virtual School in Australia – both designed to serve remote communities – have been around for just over 100 years.

The closure of schools to all but children of key workers and those with special needs has been challenging for teachers, parents and pupils. Some schools have responded enthusiastically with virtual lessons and downloadable resources. The Academies Enterprise Trust has purchased 14,500 laptops and wifi dongles for disadvantaged children to use with Google Classroom in its 68 schools. Some schools in the independent sector were already streets ahead with online learning platforms. Harrow Online is just one example. But many schools have struggled. And even the most committed parents have found juggling work, home and being a surrogate teacher a challenge.

The result is that a worrying number of pupils – notably the most disadvantaged –

have done little or no studying since March. Data published by The Sutton Trust indicates that only a third have actually been learning at home since the start of lockdown. Research by the University of London’s Institute of Education shows a similar picture with around two million pupils across the UK (one in five) having done less than an hour a day or no work at all during this time.

All this has fuelled the drive for a rethink about home-based learning and how to make it work. Official figures published by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator estimate the number of pupils home schooled in 2018/19 as over 60,000 – an increase of 13 per cent on the previous year. Although this figure is a tiny proportion of the 8.8 million pupils in schools      in England the number is likely to increase further, whether this will be permanent or a

stop gap. The National Extension College, which has been running distance learning courses for over 55 years (notably GCSEs and A levels), has seen a steady increase in enrolments from school-aged students over the past three years with a sharp increase since March.

A new initiative, The Oak National Academy, offers online resources and millions of video lessons with the support of government and local authorities. The BBC’s Bitesize classes have also proved popular. The resources are there but few school-age pupils have the motivation and know-how to self-learn, they need support from teachers.

Nevertheless, we are likely to see an increase in home-based education. This could be a temporary measure to cope with school lockdowns, children needing to take time off for health reasons or for those excluded from school. Or it could be a deliberate choice by parents for religious and other reasons. But it does raise some big issues that need to be addressed.

One is the plight of disadvantaged children and young people. The children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield has warned of a “very dangerous” threat to the child’s right to an education if schools offer reduced access with a mixture of school-based and home study as “the default” from September. There are risks of child abuse and neglect amidst evidence that home schooling is being used as a way of keeping statutory authorities such as social services at a distance. Concerns about “off-rolling” whereby schools remove difficult or low-achieving pupils so that they are not included in their GCSE results have been raised by local authorities.

There are also financial and logistical problems with home schooling. Currently, students who are not in mainstream education have to pay for distance learning materials, tutor support and exam entry charges. They also need access to a computer and a space in which to work – a tough ask for pupils who live in cramped conditions sharing a room with other family members. Nor is the exam system designed for independent candidates who have to negotiate with a local school or college to let them sit the exams alongside their own students.

What is lacking is a system that would enable pupils learning at home to be part of our national education structure instead of sitting outside it as outliers. If we are to see more home-based education or more blended learning for schools that have temporary lockdowns, then it needs to be properly managed.

Any open school system must be national and integrated into the current education system, not a marginal “add on” argues Ros Morpeth, Chief Executive of the National Extension College. “Our experience shows that a high-quality online learning infrastructure with well-designed course materials combined with skilled and qualified tutors can be used flexibly and imaginatively to meet a wide range of needs. But we need to go further and create an infrastructure that would fully integrate distance learning into our education system with parity alongside school-based learning,” she says.

A radical overhaul of the way that we deliver and manage learning could be long overdue. Universities and colleges are in a better position to switch to virtual lessons and online learning as they have the advantages of size and technology. Schools are in a less advantageous position. But new ideas are being floated. Former No.10 policy advisor  Rohan Silva, in an article for The Times, argues that the coronavirus pandemic may prove  to be a long-overdue catalyst for radical changes to our education system. He advocates a “flipped classroom” where instead of lessons progressing at the rate of the slowest pupil face-to-face lessons are recorded then watched again at home. Classroom sessions would then focus on discussions, answering pupils’ questions and written work.

For this to work we need a national distance learning system. This should be available for anyone opting for home education, or for schools so they can all opt into when needed.    The BBC and the OU are ready to make this happen

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