Oak National Academy: lockdown saviour or DfE tool?  

​​​​​​​Oak National Academy has launched its curriculum roadmap today, but what is the story behind its inception, what are its future plans, and how does it respond to its critics?

John Morgan

Oak National Academy

Miss Howell is beginning a Year 9 English lesson on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by asking the class to “clear yourself of any distractions so that you are ready for our learning today”.

Although this is an online video lesson provided by Oak National Academy, Miss Howell’s firm, formal tone comes in loud and clear to those in the room at home, making even the passing parent think they should set aside the crisps that have become a lunchtime habit during lockdown – and that they should maybe even change out of their pyjamas, too.

The lesson puts an emphasis on recalling the knowledge presented in the teacher’s slides (galvanism, by which Frankenstein brings his creature to life, is explained, then students are asked to define it), as well as on essential essay-writing techniques, such as supporting your answers through quotations.

It’s a basic lesson, but one in step with a key direction in English education policy, towards a “knowledge-rich curriculum”.

Oak National Academy: the story so far

Miss Howell (less formally, she is Sarah Howell, head of English at Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford) is one of the teachers who volunteered to create an initial batch of online lessons for Oak, which launched in April with a £500,000 grant from the Department for Education.

Since then, 16.5 million lessons have been accessed, Oak says.

And last month, Oak was further galvanised by the electricity of another DfE grant, this time for £4.3m, controversially awarded without a tender process as the grant was made as part of the government’s pandemic response.

The new DfE grant will fund Oak to create 10,000 online lessons ready for use by September, a project billed as providing primary and secondary schools with a back-up plan if lockdowns mean they cannot be fully open at stages of the coming academic year.

To meet that deadline, the academy is expanding its group of teachers to 300 after launching with just 40.

Today, the next stage of the process has been revealed: a “curriculum map”, charting the flight paths of those 10,000 lessons.

Oak Academy: key criticisms

All the above has not occurred without criticism – quite the opposite.

There are some who are alarmed by the nature of the creature that the DfE has helped bring to life, seeing Oak as an enterprise established by a narrow strata of figures from DfE-favoured multi-academy trusts; and as a potential vehicle for the department to promote a “traditionalist” agenda in teaching, or even create the subject matter of a government-approved curriculum.

So how will Oak’s project work, how might its lessons be used by schools, and how does the project sit within – or help to achieve ­– the curriculum shifts the DfE wants to see?

Asked whether creating 10,000 lessons in such a short space of time is achievable, David Thomas, Oak’s curriculum director, jokes: “We’ll find out, won’t we?”

The plan is achievable, he states, but “like any plan, when it hits reality, you don’t know what’s going to happen”.

Quality assurance plans

Thomas is the principal of Jane Austen College, a secondary free school in Norwich, which is part of the Inspiration Trust, a multi-academy trust founded by Conservative peer and former DfE minister Lord Agnew.

Creating 10,000 lessons is one thing, creating 10,000 high-quality lessons that are sequenced, clear of copyright concerns, that meet safeguarding regulations and, most of all, that are comparable to the ‘real’ thing is another.

Quality assurance will be a two-part process, reveals Thomas.

First, there will be a factual accuracy check by teams of people who are “subject specialists but not necessarily teachers – largely they are postgraduates or postdoctoral students at various universities”, says Thomas.

Next, a “teaching check” will be performed by teachers where “in all cases, there’s a subject lead who is overseeing how that works”, he adds.

What does the £4.3 million DfE grant pay for?

There’s teacher time (teachers will be remunerated for work over the holidays), the time of quality-assurance teams, and platform costs (it’s “not particularly cheap” to accommodate such a volume of video, says Thomas).

Beyond the Coronavirus lockdown

Is that sum a sensible use of cash considering the prospect of a second national lockdown of schools is being consistently talked down by government?

Well, it’s not strictly been funded as a tool for a second national lockdown. Instead, Thomas describes Oak’s offering as “inherently a contingency…but it’s a contingency for more than full school closure”.

He presents scenarios where Oak lessons could be deployed to teach a class sent home because of a positive virus test in that class, or individual pupils having to spend time at home after developing a continuous cough or temperature.

It’s not a stretch, though, to see how the lessons could be used for cover lessons, or for non-subject specialists to utilise. The Oak team talk about short-term contingency, but there are schools already planning to use the lessons as a more long-term teaching option.

Whether it is short-term or long-term use, effective utilisation of the lessons will depend on adherence to the Oak curriculum map – to drop in a lesson in sequence, the school would already need to be following the curriculum pathway.

That potentially makes what Oak does very powerful indeed. And those running it very influential.

Key players

In terms of the backgrounds of other key figures in Oak, principal Matt Hood is a former policy advisor in the DfE and former assistant headteacher. In 2017, he founded the Institute for Teaching, which won a DfE grant before it merged into the Ambition Institute, “graduate school for teachers, school leaders and system leaders”. He is also an “independent advisor” to the DfE.

Oak’s staff and project board include several figures with links to Teach First and the Ark multi-academy trust. It has been “incubated” by the Reach Foundation, which “sits alongside” Reach Academy Trust, whose schools include Reach Academy Feltham. That school provided 12 of the 40 teachers initially involved with Oak. 

Oak’s 10,000 lesson project is “the right direction,” says Ed Vainker, executive principal of Reach Academy Feltham and a member of Oak’s project board. It comes after “amazing feedback” from parents on its first batch of online lessons.

But Oak not being aligned with curricula in schools did cause problems, he says.

“I think it has taken longer to get schools invested in using it [Oak] for exactly the reason that it didn’t necessarily align with their curricula,” he concedes. “So I think the ambition to provide resources in September that schools can use in a range of permutations definitely resonates with me.”

Future plans

He doesn’t shy away from the idea that a post-pandemic role for Oak is an option.

“The hope is that this will be a resource that can continue to play a role,” says Vainker.

“What happens when a child is unwell, can’t go to school for a day? What happens if they can’t go to school for a longer period? Is there an opportunity to work with institutions that support children who can’t be in school, whether that’s hospital education, or pupil referral units, to provide a broad curriculum?

“I think that’s all a long way off, but there are situations where you could imagine a resource like this being useful.”

This train of thought is echoed by those familiar with the DfE’s thinking on Oak. They see three particular aims for it in the grant award: providing a Plan B in the event of national or local lockdowns in the coming school year; broadening input into Oak after criticism of its narrow base in certain multi-academy trusts; and providing a revamped version of the 2017 Conservative manifesto’s goal to create a curriculum fund.

That manifesto pledge aimed to help ensure that “all children have access to an academic, knowledge-rich curriculum”, an aim championed by schools standards minister Nick Gibb.

Some have argued the pandemic seems to have provided the opportunity for the DfE to pursue some long-standing aims via Oak.

Further concerns

The Education Uncovered website reported in June that the British Educational Suppliers Association had told members that Oak was leading on national discussions about curriculum sequencing to support schools to cater for potential continued disruption next year.

The site also reported that the Council for Subject Associations had “got nowhere” with the DfE after it proposed to “turbo-charge” support for schools’ online education – a proposal made three weeks before the launch of Oak was announced.

Andy Connell, chair of the Council for Subject Associations, says that among its “major concerns” about Oak are that it “doesn’t actually cover all the [national] curriculum subjects”.

Oak offers no lessons in drama, he notes, as one example.

Oak’s spokesman says that “creating our curriculum of around 10,000 lessons has been a challenge and we've not yet been able to progress in all areas we could. We'd be open to a conversation about drama and have asked for an introduction to the subject association to explore this”.

'Jo Wicks is not PE'

Meanwhile, Oak’s PE offering thus far amounts to reposting Joe Wicks videos (true devotees of the eating-crisps-in-your-pyjamas lockdown lifestyle will have to Google him) and has not involved the PE subject association.

The Wicks workouts may be popular, “but that’s not the PE national curriculum, that’s a fitness regime”, observes Connell, associate professor and head of group – education at University Centre Shrewsbury and a former secondary school head of computing and business.

He raises questions about the DfE’s motivations in funding Oak: “Why create this new academy? Why ignore other large organisations who could have done this and have much greater experience and research-informed knowledge to draw on? That does suggest there’s an ideological driver here.”

Which brings us to one of the key criticisms of Oak: that it is pushing a knowledge-rich, direct instruction model of teaching onto schools that should be the dictator of their own pedagogical choices.

Dictating pedagogy?

David Leat, professor of curriculum innovation at Newcastle University, is “somewhat dismayed by the style of lessons that are being churned out” by Oak thus far (though, of course, the lessons created with the £4.3 million grant are yet to be produced).

He sees a lack of overview or signposting on what lessons are designed to achieve, as well as a lack of differentiation for pupils at different levels and an approach to learning that “doesn’t get much beyond comprehension”.

He sets Oak in the context of a shift in government attitude towards the curriculum begun in Michael Gove’s time as education secretary and brought into focus by the Ofsted framework published in autumn 2019.

That shift, Leat observes, is away from features such as personal learning and thinking skills, towards an emphasis on a subject-based curriculum and “strong notions of curriculum and subject matter as cultural capital”, as “the best that has been thought and said” in Matthew Arnold’s dictum on education (the quotation features in England’s national curriculum framework and is a Gove favourite).

There is a phrase in the Ofsted framework about integrating new knowledge into “larger concepts”, but this is being largely lost as many schools are seeing memory and retrieval, and revisiting subject content, “as being the essence” of a subject-based curriculum, Leat says.

Pedagogy and influence

Minister for school standards Nick Gibb sees things differently, as you might expect. 

Oak is developing a series of video lessons, to help schools that need additional support to provide consistent, high-quality remote education in the next academic year in the event of a local lockdown or pupils needing to self-isolate," he says. 

“Oak’s plans are a welcome addition to the many offers of support being made available across the schools sector to ensure all children will have access to a broad and balanced curriculum from September.”

It should be made clear that schools won’t be forced to use Oak’s curriculum map or lessons and can simply decide which elements are useful for them (Thomas says Oak is offering “the building blocks of a curriculum”). Or schools can ignore it completely. 

However, critics counter that the prospect of likely continued disruption and mass pupil (or teacher) absences in the coming year presents a big opportunity for Oak’s approach to be spread across schools – especially if schools perceive it as a government-approved curriculum, as they look ahead to inspections.

“One of the concerns is that what Oak National Academy are churning out becomes to some extent a kind of template for what’s expected when people are contemplating the new Ofsted framework,” Leat argues.

The school view

Whether schools will really see it that way is hard to know, but Keziah Featherstone, headteacher of Q3 Academy Tipton and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable, does present some more practical concerns, away from the more ideological criticisms Leat and others have cited.

“If you’re going to generate 10,000 lessons, they are going to be very homogenous,” says Featherstone.

She questions whether a “one-size-fits all” approach to curriculum can meet the needs of schools with specific social contexts, highlighting her own school’s position in a Black Country region with an ethnically diverse population.

And online learning cannot be the whole solution for schools such as Q3, she says, where “the vast majority of my children do not have their own device and they do not have reliable internet”.

Her school has used mailouts of exercise books and paper-based resources during lockdown, complemented by online work for those children who have better internet access.

She says that there is “a lot of good” in the Oak project, but that it “may be lost because there may be the perception in some quarters that this will be pushing quite an old-fashioned, traditional approach to the curriculum”.

Response to criticism

How are all the criticisms viewed by those involved in Oak? Some of the wilder conspiracy theories have been met with distress and there is a certain (perhaps naïve) surprise at the level of interrogation they have faced.

Thomas counters that Oak’s choice of pedagogy is “massively constrained by the fact we are teaching through video”. Factors such as not having the ability to use group work do “lead you towards a more traditional style of teaching”, he argues.

He acknowledges that Oak teachers are drawn heavily from multi-academy trusts, but suggests this is because such institutions are the ones best placed to allow teachers time off to create lessons.

On subject expertise, Thomas says that Oak “worked with the department to get lists of people to invite, and they made a bunch of recommendations to us about who they thought would help create a representative group.”

Oak’s spokesman says individual subject associations “have played a key role in advising on our curriculum. To build on this great work, we are now in contact with the Council for Subject Associations chair”. 

For Thomas, Oak is straightforward in its aims: “We are just a group of teachers who have given up some of our working time and a lot of our spare time to try and help our colleagues because we know how important it is to have a functioning fallback.”

Whether Oak is seen an ideologically-driven attempt to reshape schools’ approach to the curriculum, or as contingency planning, school leaders and teachers with an interest in education policy should probably – as Miss Howell would advise – ready themselves for some learning and pay attention to its progress.

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