I wrote a story for yesterday’s Sunday Times, with the paper’s education correspondent Jack Grimston, which at first sight may not seem that important. It’s a story about what could become the UK’s first virtual school, in which children study from home, have most lessons online and pop into school only for the occasional appointment with a tutor or to meet other youngsters.
The plans for the school – which would be based in Staffordshire – have been submitted by an American company to Michael Gove, the education secretary. If it gets the green light it could be open by 2014.
A source said: “It could help school refuseniks or children who are being bullied. The school would offer online lessons, and children might go into school some days for one-to-one tuition.”
The school is proposed as the first in a chain of virtual ones, some of which might be used by home-schooled children. More than 80,000 children in Britain are educated at home, some for religious or ideological reasons.
The reason it’s so interesting is because a virtual school would require far fewer teachers than a conventional one. One teacher could teach 100 pupils using online lessons, instead of 30, the norm in British state schools. The American company’s proposal could be a pointer to the future as the use of technology grows and the government comes under greater pressure to cut costs. In America, schools like the Rocketship school in California are far further down the technology road than their British counterparts.
The virtual school proposal is among a tranche of applications to set up free schools that is being considered by the government. Although it did not make the list of the 102 new free schools announced by David Cameron last Friday, the US company’s application was a “close miss” this time around, according to a source close to the government. The source said it stood a “very, very good chance” of being approved next year.
Given the implications for teachers, it’s hardly surprising the teaching unions are opposed.
Last week Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said. “In principle there is nothing wrong with online learning and supporting through one-to-one tuition,” she said, “but not when that is the main source of formal learning for a pupil.
I can’t make up my mind whether virtual schools are a good idea or a bad one. I love the Open University and the way more and more universities are making their lectures available online for anyone to download. But surely children need people around them to learn effectively, instructing and supporting them – ideally one to one.