An Open Academy

I am a retired engineer and inventor with a career in the development of technology. I have had the good fortune to meet and work with many inventive people. I have found them to be a very mixed bunch and I suggest that there is no selection process that would be any good at identifying them early on in their education.

Historically we see that many of the leading scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs that have come from unlikely backgrounds. Learning difficulties, late development and “difficult” personality traits such as autism are not uncommon.

I suggest that the prosperity of the nation is strongly dependent on these unpredictable creative people getting the appropriate education. The rigid selection process involved in the grammar school system will let many of them down. As individuals they probably have the best idea of their own potential, and an open door along a corridor is the only selection they need.

The idea of The Open Academy is to provide the sort of advanced teaching opportunities offered by selective schools but, rather than concentrating them in single isolated institution, to distribute them between existing comprehensive schools. It would operate as a distinct institution with faculties in every school, even including selective schools. Students would be able to get advanced teaching when they are ready and in the subjects they need it for and open up horizons for those that can benefit. It would be an environment where it is OK to be clever.

To begin, while the system is developed, I would imagine that there would be a cluster of neighbouring schools with a faculty in each school. Initially it would aim to cater for sixth form students and the bulk of the teaching would be Open University style distance learning, probably making considerable use of on-line learning modules. Although the faculty would be just another room (eventually, maybe, a suite of rooms), it should feel like a different place, belonging to the network of faculties in other schools rather than the host school.

This development phase should not involve too much extra cost, the faculties would be small, catering for just a few percent of students. It would probably need a full time supervisor but, as the routine study will be mostly on-line, this would not involve teaching. Also the regime would be based on the assumption that students are only in the faculty because they want to study and are mature enough not to misbehave, so the supervisor should not have to deal with discipline issues.

When fully established there should not be significant extra costs. The total number of staff and students would remain roughly the same and they would occupy the same total floor area; just different parts of it. The teaching component of the courses in the faculties would tend to replace attending classes in the host school with on-line learning. There would be some transport costs and some of the advanced courses might need more expensive facilities such as laboratory, studio and workshop space and equipment.

There will be challenging organisational issues to be sorted out. Time-tabling looks like an obvious headache, but distance learning, being done instead of a class room course, is not constrained by timetables.

The faculty would enable students to progress beyond the normal school syllabus. It would be plausible, for example, for a maths prodigy, at any ordinary comprehensive school and without needing any special arrangements, to leave school with a degree. Also some students may want to study minority subjects, eg Latin, which are not normally on the curriculum because insufficient take-up in any one school to be practical. Using the faculty, a single course could be run for all students in a locality combined. Then there maybe students who simply get on better with on-line tuition.

I understand that on-line tuition technology is well developed and available. It may well be being used in the mainstream school for some parts of the normal curriculum or by students who have fallen behind. However there is a particular aspect of on-line tuition that is particularly relevant to this discussion.

When a student undertakes a particular module, large amounts of data on the minutiae of their progress can be collected automatically and analysed using big data techniques (AI), drawing on the similar data collected for all the other students that have used the same module and combining this with data on how they all fared in all the other modules. It appears that this analysis can give a very accurate prediction of how they will fare in further modules. Reliable but limited short term forecasts are possible. This means that entrance can be completely open with progress adjusted according to this ongoing analysis.

In contrast, selective schools select students using a single set of tests at the age of 11. It was once thought that these test could identify those who would have low achievement in life, so that they could be excluded from an education that would be wasted on them. It it now understood that such long-term forecasts are not reliable. (We also now know that the human brain undergoes a major restructuring during the teenage years. It seems highly unlikely that any testing done before this upheaval could ever provide an accurate prediction of how students are going to perform in later life.)

We do need to provide learning opportunities and a suitable environment for more able students. I suggest that The Open Academy would be an alternative to traditional selective schools, particularly for those awkward, creative people who can contribute so much to our country. It would also avoid the divisive effects of selection on communities and within families, where the majority of children are effectively told they are second rate.

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