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Chris Woodhead and Online Learning

John Simkin

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Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, has launched a chain of independent schools that he believes the largest private education provider in Britain. The company, called Cognita, plans to buy 24 schools over the next two years and hopes to provide an education for over 10,000 children.

Apparently surveys have found that many parents would be willing to use fee-paying schools if they could afford to do so. However, the problem is the average day school fees are £2,429 a term. Woodhead’s plan is to provide inexpensive private education. He points out he will not be competing with Britain’s best known private schools. “We have Harrods and we have Tesco” he said. “Of course, schools are very different to supermarkets but there is room for more than one level of provision.”

In other words, Woodhead plans to compete with those state schools he has been so busy criticising over the last few years (“15,000 incompetent teachers”). All part of his long-term strategy.

One proposal is for all Cognita’s schools “to draw on lesson materials developed centrally by experts, mostly head teachers, allowing teachers to spend more time in the classroom.” This is the first time I have heard that head teachers were experts at producing teaching materials. Have they been going on secret courses? Or have they been pinching them from the web?

The schools will also hold weekly tests for pupils. To quote Woodhead: “The teacher needs to know that what she has taught has been taught has been understood, otherwise how the hell can she plan the next stage? I am not going to be deflected from this by idle chatter about testing being too stressful for children”.

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Been there - done it - got the T-shirt - crashed in flames …

At the height of the dot.com there were lots of attempts in Sweden to do just what Chris Woodhead seems to be trying to do. The most notable attempt involved teachers in Åre in Jämtland (who were, as it happens, pretty good on-line teachers) in the north of Sweden working with pupils who were mostly from Stockholm. Problem was that on-line education made a lot of sense in sparsely-populated regions like Jämtland, but it was pointless in Stockholm, where pupils could hop on a bus or a tube and be in the school within half an hour.

The end result was that the costs quickly spiralled out of control, since the pupils insisted on meeting face-to-face whenever they could … which meant that the school had to bear all the costs of elaborately-equipped premises, which in turn broke the budget.

As for tests … well, if Chris Woodhead thinks that there's a way of constructing tests of knowledge which can be administered on-line, then good luck to him. You can certainly create on-line tests - the question is what the results of such tests are good for. However, this topic has been aired on this Forum quite a lot already, so perhaps we don't need to pursue it here.

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