In April 2020, as it became obvious that schools were going to be locked down for some time to come, 40 teachers led by Reach Academy in Feltham set up Oak Academy. Oak had been hastily conceived as an interim measure to provide some online teaching whilst children were locked down at home. The initiative was given a one-off £4.3mn grant from the Department for Education (DfE).
The principal, Matt Hood, is a policy adviser to the DfE. In 2017, he founded the Institute for Teaching, which merged into the Ambition Institute, “a graduate school for teachers, school leaders and system leaders”.
Online learning from Oak Academy
Oak’s online lessons immediately began to attract criticism from the education establishment. It was suggested that the materials lacked in differentiation – different teaching techniques for children at different levels of understanding – and that the completion rates for the lessons were too low.
In July 2020, I offered some commentary on open learning for the pandemic, questioning whether arts and humanities subjects such as history were best addressed with online fixed-answer quiz-style assessments. I also reflected upon whether online teaching skills might be developed, and resources shared through a collaboration between senior schoolteachers and Open University academics. The Open University has been developing distance, and more recently, online education techniques since 1969.
Besides being a qualified schoolteacher, I was an Open University tutor for 20 years, and I received their postgraduate certificate in online and distance education in 2013, so I thought such commentary might be useful. In the event, however, I was shocked to come under attack on social media for daring to voice an opinion.
I was baffled by this response for nearly two years, until Byline Times published an article that offered a possible explanation: that there were complex links between the founders of Oak and the Conservative government, which caused me to reflect upon whether constructive criticism from outside this circle may have been perceived as unwelcome.
Open-air education opportunities ignored
In September 2021, concerns and misgivings were voiced about the mental and physical health of children required to spend nearly an entire school day watching ‘talking head’ teaching on a screen, followed by the completion of quiz-style assessments. The Scottish Government reported “remote schooling (in particular) [and] an overload of screen time… have been cited as taking their toll on wellbeing”.
I therefore published another article about open air education initiatives that had thrived in the UK during the early twentieth century. At that time many deadly infectious diseases ran rife amongst children, particularly those living in tightly packed urban areas. I also included some information about contemporary open-air initiatives in Scandinavian nations during the Covid pandemic.
In the event, schools in England opened their doors from that September. However, a huge wave of Covid infection occurred over the Christmas period, with unvaccinated under-18s in the eye of the storm. Had open air and more flexible distance learning options been developed over 2020/21, and those techniques used over that term (during which there were many dry, warm days), it is likely that some children and their families might have been spared the misery of Christmas holiday Covid.
The post-pandemic rise of Oak Academy
Since lockdown ended, Oak has continued to thrive, despite various misgivings voiced by teachers and education academics, for example the claim that it is a “Trojan horse” that will lead to a fixed curriculum being imposed upon schools in England.
In 2021, the Oak board suggested that it should be turned into a private company. Schools Week propose that this would have “handed the ‘founding members’ a £41 million windfall”. The request was however refused, with the DfE handing down a decision that Oak should become a nationalised service.
In March 2022 the DfE announced that Oak would become a publicly funded “arm’s length body”. Ed Vainker, chief executive of Reach Foundation reported that although Oak will “move into public hands” it will remain “independent and free in public ownership”. By June, the arm’s length body had been re-labelled as a ‘Quango’ (quasi autonomous non-governmental organisation).
This was in some ways a surprise, because in 2010, the incoming Conservative-led coalition government had declared war on Quangos, axing 192 of them. They accused the outgoing Labour government of setting up a ‘quangocracy’ of self-aggrandising bodies, funded by public money. By mid-2022, however, it appeared that the narrative on Quangos had significantly softened, and Oak was consequently admitted to this fold.
The Oak controversy
The DfE claimed that their new Oak Quango would offer resources to “stretch pupils” and that the online lessons would not replace face-to-face teaching. However, Sir Jon Coles, chief executive of United Learning commented:
“When I talked to the then minister about his ideas for the future of Oak, he gave me a clear sense that his aim was to promote his own view of the curriculum… Officials now deny that the aim is to create a predominant curriculum model or to promote a single government view. But nothing substantial has altered in this project since that initial conversation.”
David Spendlove, professor of education at the University of Manchester, expressed urgent concern about the adoption of online materials by schools as the basis of their core curriculum.
In October 2022, it was announced that the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) was requesting a judicial review of the government decision to award Oak £43mn of public money to facilitate its development into a permanent institution. They claim that in doing so, the government breached rules on subsidies, procurement and consultation.
The controversy therefore continues and is likely to run on for quite some time.
Enter the Institute of Teaching
The DfE made another announcement in March 2022: that they were allocating £121mn to the creation of a new ‘Institute of Teaching’ (IoT) that would become the “flagship” institute for teacher training and school leader development in England.
Four large multi-academy trusts (MATs) were tasked to set up the IoT: Harris Federation, Outwood Grange Academies Trust, Star Academies and Oasis Community Learning. Together they created a collaborative body, the School Led Development Trust (SLDT).
The SLDT proposed that “the IoT will attempt to replicate the approach of schools which combine high standards of pupil behaviour and discipline”. This may trigger concern in parents whose children have experienced harsh treatment in some of the schools run by the partners in the SLDT, and indeed, with respect to ongoing concerns about how MATs are financed and managed.
There are many concerns about ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies in MATs, not least the creation of an underclass of ‘ghost children’ who quietly drop out of school and never return. The Education Policy Institute found that large MATs were most likely to experience such ‘unexplained moves’ with almost half of the pupils who left failing to return to mainstream schools, with no explanation recorded.
In May 2022, universities raised concerns that “the government was trying to push [them] out of teacher training for political reasons”. In September 2022, it was announced that only two-thirds of existing teacher training providers had been reaccredited.
The schools’ bill “abomination”
In June 2022, cross-party concern was voiced about a schools bill passing through Parliament, which sought far reaching powers for the secretary of state for education over many aspects of the everyday administration of state-funded schools, including curriculum, admissions, the structure of the school day, the appointment of staff and the management of premises.
Lord Kenneth Baker, the architect of the National Curriculum commented: “Constitutionally, it is an abomination… [it] is unacceptable and I am amazed that a Conservative Government have done it.”
The bill failed to pass through to the Commons at that stage and remains in the Parliamentary process.
What are the connections between the rise and rise of Oak Academy, the handover of teacher training to the MATs, and the clear power grab (that even shocked senior Tories) embodied in the schools’ bill? This is, as yet, unclear. But the way ahead for the independence of schools and teachers appears to be strewn with obstacles.
What is clear however, following the Covid lockdown and the short-lived Truss government’s crashing of the UK economy, is that the UK Government is seeking to cut the cost of public services to address a huge national deficit.
The so-called Pearson method, imposed upon state funded education in some US districts and across the developing world, may be one of the ways in which the government approaches slashing the state education budget.
Schools using this technique are located within the most disadvantaged areas of large cities and housed in cheaply rented venues. They typically train their own teachers, who are younger and less experienced than those in standard state schools, and therefore cheaper to employ. The curriculum and teaching materials are housed online, accessed by both pupils and teachers through digital technology.
The company argue that this delivers a guaranteed and standardised “high quality” education at a lower cost per student. However, Carolyn Roberts argues in Schools Week, such fixed curricula are ‘a symptom of curriculum mediocrity, not the treatment.’
The question that will no doubt concern parents and teachers in England is whether our government has something similar in mind. It is, as yet, too early to tell, but the pieces of the current policy jigsaw are starting to indicate that this might be the case. It is a situation that is increasingly concerning me, not only as a retired teacher and education academic, but most of all as a grandparent.