Like the Open University, we now need an Open School for the whole country

When the Covid-19 emergency is over, schools will face a monumental task. Children who have been learning at home will need support in making the transition to the “in school” curriculum. The needs of disadvantaged youngsters, who will have fallen even further behind during the closure, will have to be a priority. We cannot just think of the lockdown as a very long holiday with schools able to pick up as if nothing had happened.

Many teachers have been displaying great ingenuity in the way they have provided home support and online learning. The best models – such as the Oak National Academy, a hub of resources created by teachers – will still be highly relevant in the post-shutdown period. Meanwhile, the BBC has provided a magnificent range of resources with the backing of government and local authorities. Only the Beeb really has the reach, competence and multimedia capacity to rise to this challenge.

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But all this must be taken even further to provide overdue and long-lasting benefits to the whole school system. Fifty years ago, despite formidable detractors, Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee pushed through the creation of an Open University. Look at the proud success that has been. Now we need to do the same in creating an Open School. Such an institution, even if born of a crisis, could play a major role in raising educational standards for decades to come.

Open Schools of great repute exist around the world. In Canada, the Open School of British Columbia has existed since 1919, and offers a rich range of resources and courses for all school grades. In Australia, Victoria’s Virtual School also goes back more than a century.

These open schools were created to serve isolated communities but now provide a service to the whole school sector. Any teacher, and anyone else, can access the support provided.

If the UK had an Open School, what would it look like? We believe it needs to be a free-standing, independent institution offering high-quality self-learning, tutored courses and resources in every subject. It should explain how teachers in schools could incorporate these resources into their teaching. It could create a forum for networking for students of all ages, learner to learner, school to school, across districts, regions, nationally and internationally.

It could sponsor innovatory projects – particularly in response to the challenges of creating genuinely inclusive learning. And it could build a network of tutors, inside and outside schools, skilled at offering enrichment activities to the many, but also expert at helping youngsters who have fallen behind.

At the primary level, an Open School would be a huge support for those teachers who do not have a background in the subjects they teach (languages, mathematics and science, for example). It would be especially important for older students. There are tens of thousands who, for health or social reasons, need teaching outside the formal school context.

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At secondary age, students might have some subjects taught in a conventional way and others through the Open School. Every student would have a much richer range of learning opportunities than those offered by their own school’s timetable. What better way to address the motivation challenge of the adolescent years?

And schools might start to feel different. The preoccupation with crowd control, behaviour, even exclusion, could become part of history in a move towards individual, personalised timetables.

There would be a cost, but against the vast sums the chancellor is working with it would be pocket money to set up. And we could start now. The BBC, and organisations such as Oak National Academy, offer a core. An Open School would have the very best resources from a range of providers.

Some subjects, mathematics, for example, might be given priority. Others would follow. Get the decisions right about structure and the Open School could be fully set up by the end of next year.

The Open University could advise on infrastructure. Maybe the BBC should take a lead. This would be an institution and a resource for all time. The Open University astonished the world with the quality of its resources and courses. An Open School would match that achievement.

Sir Tim Brighouse was the London commissioner for schools. Bob Moon is emeritus professor of education at The Open University

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