An Open School for the post-COVID world

What would an Open School, that is open to all learners but designed to support young people who do not achieve in the existing UK education system, be like?

At Nesta, we are exploring what this might look like and are looking to partner with people and organisations who want to grasp this COVID-19 moment and to work with us to reimagine education in the United Kingdom.

We want to find people and organisations who are interested in building an Open School – especially those who are willing and able to fund the next stage of work or who could lend expertise to the team (especially in helping us develop a pilot / minimum viable product).

The problem

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting school closures have highlighted the challenges of providing a high quality and relevant education for all young people, especially for those who are disadvantaged through lack of access to education and those who are not achieving within the current education system.

We know that prior to COVID-19, having started school as voracious learners, too many children leave school disliking learning, or not seeing its relevance to their lives. For example, 100,000 young people leave school each year without 5 GCSEs, 18 per cent of school leavers are unable to read, 20 per cent are unable to undertake basic numerical calculations and too many children are on the outside of the school system (e.g. excluded children, school refusers, home-schoolers, and children in hospital). COVID-19 has only exacerbated these challenges to education in the UK.

Despite the vast investment of money and expertise over decades, too many young people are still let down by the education system.

The idea

In May 2020 Professor Sir Tim Brighouse and Professor Emeritus (Open University) Bob Moon wrote an open letter in the Guardian. The letter encouraged the BBC and others to learn from the success of the Open University to build an 'Open School'. Their vision is for 'free-standing, independent institutions offering high-quality self-learning, tutored courses and resources in every subject' and they see the Open School as a way to address lost motivation in learners. The former director general of the BBC Tony Hall wrote a letter in response, in which he said that the BBC would happily join a coalition to build an Open School, where new possibilities about how education is delivered could be explored. He asked, 'How might learning change, in and outside schools? Could we create a public infrastructure that would make it easier for all schools to benefit while growing the market for commercial providers?'

The challenge

Nesta thought that the proposal for an Open School had the potential to help hundreds of thousands of young people across the UK.

So, we took up the challenge of turning the Open School from a vision into a workable concept that could tackle some big educational challenges and a proposal for support. This meant that the team at Nesta needed to develop a realistic concept and prototype in order to test its feasibility and potential impact.

So we set ourselves off on a design sprint, aiming to answer the question:

What would an Open School, that is open to all learners but was designed to support young people who do not achieve in the existing UK education system, be like?

In order to answer this question, we pulled together a cross-disciplinary group from across Nesta with learning sciences, education, EdTech, design, and innovation experience. We also engaged a group of stakeholders to help guide the sprint each week, which included the BBC, Oak National Academy, Pearson, the Education Endowment Fund, the Open University and others.

Throughout the sprint, we engaged with dozens of educationalists and experts including Multi-Academy Trust leaders, the teacher unions and subject associations, the National Tutoring Programme, the National Extension College, the Sutton Trust, technology companies (such as Microsoft, Intel and TikTok) and academies and trusts such as Big Education.

What did we do?

During the six-week sprint, we narrowed the problem, identified the key users, reviewed evidence of 'what works' and developed workable concepts to test. We also identified many examples of innovative education providers world-wide, from which to learn from.

To define our main target group, we identified the many 'user groups' that an Open School could target, and we worked to understand the needs and aspirations of these young people, including those not in education, employment or training and those who do not have opportunities to study their subject of choice at their current school.

We decided that initially the Open School will be designed for secondary school aged young people (11-18) and that, for developing some initial concepts to test, we would focus on two main user groups:

  • Young people who are struggling to reach their full potential e.g. they are not on track to achieve five good GCSEs or equivalent qualifications or they are not currently satisfied with their progress at school, and
  • those who find accessing learning challenging (i.e. those who struggle to attend mainstream school regularly).

You can find the output of our design sprint here.

What’s next?

Over the next six weeks we will be testing our concepts with a range of groups including young people, parents, teachers and other educational experts.

We will be sharing these ideas with the various users and stakeholders to see what is desirable and also developing plans about what is feasible. An example concept is below.

We are very excited to hear from anyone who is interested in being part of testing workshops or to support this to develop a pilot or minimum viable product, in partnership with Nesta. If you would like to join us please email [email protected]

*This is a working concept being tested with stakeholders - subject to change.

An Open School for young people who are struggling to reach their full potential.

The Open School is a novel approach to supporting young people, aged 11-18, to be more motivated, confident and empowered to explore and develop their own interests and passions and achieve the qualifications and skills they need for their future.

The Open School is a complement, rather than an alternative, to in-school learning. This could mean that the Open School works closely with a student’s registered school to agree their Open School learning journey to ensure they have a coherent learning experience.

How do young people learn in the Open School?

The Open School has been specifically designed to help these young people fulfill their personal ambitions and potential by promoting their role as agents of their own learning, offering them access to high quality learning opportunities and potentially through 1:1 support.

On joining the Open School, young people could be allocated a teacher-mentor who supports them 1:1 throughout their journey with Open School. The teacher-mentor works with the young person to establish their learning interests, ambitions and needs and together they agree on learning objectives and a structured learning journey which are shared with their registered school.

The Open School offers young people access to a wide variety of online learning opportunities, including both pre-recorded and live lessons designed and taught by expert teachers. These learning opportunities are available to all, from any location, so users can enjoy great flexibility when studying. Learning opportunities are designed to cater to an individual's needs and interests and to be both engaging and challenging, to maximise motivation and stretch capabilities. Students in the Open School have the chance to learn both individually and in groups online with their peers e.g. through small learning groups, discussion forums and collaborative projects.

What can be learnt?

The Open School focuses on supporting young people to achieve their full potential through improving results at school while also offering opportunities to develop social and emotional skills, improve confidence and well-being as well as other skills and attitudes related to learning, such as motivation, collaboration, critical thinking and perseverance.

The Open School offers a wide range of subjects including the English Baccalaureate subjects (English language and literature, maths, the sciences, geography, history, foreign languages) and many more such as music, drama, business and media. It also offers vocational subjects, such as hospitality and IT. The content is organised according to the subject divisions that are most commonly used in schools, however, interdisciplinary courses and projects are also available.


Kate Sutton

Kate Sutton

Kate Sutton

Head of Corporate Social Innovation

Kate was responsible for managing Nesta's Corporate Social Innovation and Inclusive Growth work

View profile
Emma Sutherland

Emma Sutherland

Emma Sutherland

Assistant Programme Manager

Emma was an Assistant Programme Manager in Nesta’s Education team.

View profile
Wayne Holmes

Wayne Holmes

Wayne Holmes

Principal Researcher, Education

Wayne led on developing Nesta’s education research agenda and producing research on how technology can be used to reimagine teaching and learning.

View profile
Silvia Pau

Silvia Pau

Silvia Pau

Assistant Programme Manager, A Fairer Start mission

Silvia is an Assistant Programme Manager.

View profile
Kate Bower

Kate Bower

Kate Bower

Assistant Programme Manager, Education

Kate worked on the Maths Mission programme series of projects that run in partnership between Nesta and Tata.

View profile