The case for a national open school

Written by: Ros Morpeth & Anne Nicholls | Published:

Has the coronavirus crisis and the reliance on remote learning during lockdown made the case for a national open school? Ros Morpeth and Anne Nicholls believe it has


Pupils have returned to school – some after more than five months away from the physical classroom. But questions are still being asked.

What will the “new normal” look like? How will pupils catch-up on missed lessons? Will social distancing and local lockdowns mean students will have to spend some time learning at home this year?

The way that schools have coped with lockdown has varied. Some independent schools were streets ahead, already having already set up their own online learning platforms, whereas other schools had high numbers of disadvantaged pupils unable to access online learning at all.

The BBC provided a huge range of resources, such as its Bitesize classes, and the new government-supported initiative – Oak National Academy – produced millions of free video lessons with the help of volunteer teachers. Indeed, Oak National Academy is continuing to operate into 2020/21 as part of the government contingency planning.

Yet despite this, a worrying number of pupils in both primary and secondary schools – notably the most disadvantaged – have done little studying since March.

Data published by the Sutton Trust indicates that only a third were actually learning at home during lockdown (Sutton Trust, 2020). Research by University College 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 (Green, 2020).

The number of pupils who are classified as home-schooled in 2018/19 was estimated at more than 60,000 – an increase of 13 per cent on the previous year (OSA, 2020). This figure is a tiny proportion of the 8.8 million pupils in schools in England, but it is surely set to increase in an era of Covid-19.

All this has stimulated debate about the need for a national open school – a national service offering distance learning.

In an article published in the Guardian in May, Sir Tim Brighouse (the former London commissioner for schools) and Bob Moon (emeritus professor of education at the Open University) outlined a model of a free-standing, independent institution offering courses designed for self-study, with tutor support in all subjects and opportunities for networking online (2020).

Discussions have already started for a national open school between the BBC, the Open University and the not-for-profit foundation Nesta. There are examples from across the world of how such a system could work in the UK. 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 more than 100 years.

So, would a national open school along the lines proposed by Tim Brighouse and Bob Moon work in the UK? We think it could – and must – but there are issues that need to be addressed.

One is how a mixture of school-based and home-based learning would work if some schools have to close following a second outbreak of the virus. The Department for Education guidance on full re-opening obliges schools to have in place contingency plans for local lockdowns by the end of September (DfE, 2020). These guidelines say teachers must step up the quality of their remote learning provision because this may end up as an "essential component" of learning. All this means we need to rethink how to deliver blended learning.

A major concern is that many disadvantaged young people will fall through the cracks if schools offer reduced access with staggered attendance. 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 a mixture of school-based and home study as “the default” (Savage & Lightfoot, 2020).

Meanwhile, 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 (OSA, 2020). There are also safeguarding risks, with evidence that home-schooling can be used as a way of keeping statutory authorities such as social services at a distance.

There are practical and financial issues as well that affect those opting for full-time home education. Currently, students (or rather their parents) have to pay for distance learning materials, tutor support and exam entry charges. We know of at least one private distance learning provider that charges home-educated students £1,000 for providing centre assessed grades.

Furthermore, pupils need access to a computer and a space in which to work – a tough ask for many who live in cramped conditions sharing a room with other family members.

Nor is the exam system designed for independent candidates, who must negotiate with a local school or college to let them sit the exams alongside their own students.

Any open school must be available nationally, properly funded and integrated into the current education system, not a marginal “add-on” sitting outside it. Simply providing resources and learning platforms run by companies such as Google, Zoom and Microsoft is not enough. You need teacher support, as few pupils have the motivation and know-how to manage their own learning.

At the National Extension College, we have been managing distance learning for more than 55 years. Since the start of lockdown in March (and over the past few years) we have seen a surge of enrolments for our GCSE and A level courses from school-aged students. 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.

So, what does the future hold? This may not be the right time for a radical overhaul of teaching methodology in schools (who will be busy coping with social distancing and playing catch-up). But with the possibility of more parents opting for home-schooling for their children, or a system where pupils only attend school part-time, it will become essential to have a national distance learning system.

We are in no way arguing that home-schooling replaces or is better than face-to-face-teaching. But for those who decide on home-schooling, or who are forced back to remote learning due to local lockdowns or self-isolation, there must be a system that is fully integrated into our national education structure. That means being properly regulated and monitored. The BBC, the Open University and the Oak Academy have made a brilliant start. The question now is: What next?


  • Ros Morpeth is CEO of the National Extension College and Anne Nicholls is a freelance writer and communications consultant.


Further information & resources

  • Brighouse & Moon: Like the Open University, we now need an Open School for the whole country, Guardian, May 2020: https://bit.ly/3gGVPVi
  • DfE: Guidance for full opening: Schools, last updated September 10, 2020: https://bit.ly/38tdOfd
  • Office of the Schools Adjudicator: Annual Report 2018/19, January 2020: https://bit.ly/3k6iv3s
  • National Extension College: www.nec.ac.uk
  • Savage & Lightfoot: Prime minister is risking basic right to an education, says children’s tsar, Guardian, June 2020: https://bit.ly/2RmXwgr
  • Sutton Trust: COVID-10 Impacts: School shutdown, April 2020: https://bit.ly/3hhPPTc
  • Green: Schoolwork in lockdown: New evidence on the epidemic of educational poverty, UCL Institute of Education, June 2020: https://bit.ly/3hgSU63


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