Please settle down – all five million of you

Disruption: Will a handful of elite cyborg universities soon monopolise higher education? © Joe Darrow

Should every country have an Open School – a free online resource? The lockdown has inspired some brilliant experiments in teaching. Many hope that it will change education for ever.

“Good morning, everybody.” As the young woman appears on the classroom screen, the children sit up, full of anticipation: they know that the lesson is going to be fun and inspiring.

Looking at them is the International Teacher of the Year, based 200 miles away, at a very expensive private academy – but, thanks to the Open School, she is giving this lesson to them too.

This is how some education experts see the future. The lockdown has triggered all kinds of ingenious new ways of teaching enabled by technological advances, such as Microsoft 365 and Zoom – and organisations like the Oak National Academy and the BBC.

Now, there are calls for some changes to be made permanent.

The idea of an Open School is based on the Open University (OU). This was launched in 1971 to provide further education for those who had missed out on going to it. Instead of going to a physical university, students watched lectures at home on the BBC; today, the teaching is mainly on the internet.

Based in Milton Keynes, the OU is now one of the world’s largest universities, with over 174,000 students.

Advocates of the Open School are not suggesting that schools as we know them should disappear altogether. What they envisage is teachers and other resources being shared online between schools – and pupils in different parts of the country linking up to work on projects together. Children who are ill at home would also benefit.

“We believe it needs to be a free-standing, independent institution offering high-quality self-learning, tutored courses and resources in every subject,” wrote education experts Sir Tim Brighouse and Bob Moon in the Guardian.

“Every student would have a much richer range of learning opportunities than those offered by their own school’s timetable.”

In some countries, remote teaching has been available for more than a century. The Canadian state of British Columbia started correspondence courses for children who had no school near them in 1919: 13 of the pupils were from lighthouse keepers’ families.

Australia’s Virtual School Victoria began in 1914, with just two pupils. In 1953, it started using two-way radio so that teachers and pupils could talk to each other.

Should every country have an Open School?

Who can tell me?

Some say that the Open School is badly needed. Every school has some teachers who are more inspiring than others, and it is grossly unfair that pupils have to compete for exam grades and university places against others who have been better taught. Having great teachers available online would solve that problem, and reduce the workload for other teachers, enabling them to perform better.

Others argue that teaching is a two-way street. Teachers need to get to know their pupils, respond to their questions, and check that they understand what they are being taught. An online teacher with thousands of pupils would never be able to do that. The lessons would be like university lectures, and even 20-year-olds often find those hard to concentrate on.

You Decide

  1. Is it easier to learn at home or at school?
  2. Should schools divide pupils according to their ability?


  1. Create a leaflet to promote the Open School. Design a shield for it, choose a motto, and write six bullet points explaining why it is better than any other school.
  2. Imagine that you are a teacher. Prepare a lesson about something that fascinates you and deliver it to your family. Give them a test at the end, and ask them for feedback on your performance.

Some People Say...

“The most valuable of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it has to be done, whether you like it or not.”

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), English novelist and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There was great scepticism about the Open University when Harold Wilson, who was then prime minister, put forward the idea. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Iain MacLeod, called it “blithering nonsense”, and even some of Wilson’s own Labour ministers were critical. Many people thought that it would devalue university education, seeing it as “sitting in front of the telly to get a degree”. But it soon proved a huge success, and is regarded by some as Wilson’s greatest achievement.
What do we not know?
How the lockdown will affect universities. Some believe that it might bring a major shift to online teaching, so that students would not need to leave home and pay for expensive accommodation. The top universities could take on many more students, and might join up with tech companies like Google to do so. But some think that living on campus, with a wide variety of other undergraduates, is an equally important part of student education, and worry that smaller universities will be squeezed out.

Word Watch

Oak National Academy
A free “online classroom” created by teachers in response to the lockdown.
Milton Keynes
A town in Buckinghamshire, created in the 1960s to relieve pressure on housing in London. Its most famous work of art is a sculpture of concrete cows. The footballer Deli Alli grew up there.
Imagine. It comes from the French word for face, and also used to mean “face up to danger”.
British Columbia
The most westerly state of Canada, between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It became the scene of a gold rush in 1858, when tens of thousands of prospectors were lured by the discovery of gold in the Thompson River.
Correspondence courses
These relied on the postal service. Teachers would send assignments by letter, and pupils would send their work back to be marked.
A state in south-eastern Australia. It too experienced a gold rush in the 1850s, which increased its population from 77,000 to 540,000 in the space of 10 years, and established Melbourne as the country’s second largest city.

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