In the first year of the pilot, pioneered with the OU In The North, ten sixth formers took the half-credit Open Mathematics and achieved five passes and five distinctions. In 1998, Discovering Science, a full credit course, was also offered. Next year, You, Your Computer and the Net is added to the list, attracting staff and parents to study alongside the sixth formers.
Though Monkseaton has not yet tracked whether their OU studies have helped students adapt better to conventional university life, it has plenty of anecdotal evidence that their OU credits are winning them better offers from their first choice universities. And in the school's entrance hall is a display of newspaper cuttings recording OU student and sixth former Lara Dixon's success in winning a place at Harvard.
The American connection is something head teacher Dr Paul Kelley cites when he describes his rationale for bringing the OU into the school:
"In the US you go to university at whatever age is appropriate. Not everyone is at the same level and ability at 18; my responsibility is to deliver to each child the education that is appropriate to them.
"If there are lots of children in America and in other countries who are capable of going on to university early, I refuse to believe that the same isn't true here."
Kelley's view accords with recent government thinking on provision for very able children, including a Commons select committee report that paves the way for greater links between schools and local universities.
"What you get with an A-level is an exam and syllabus. With the OU it is learning and teaching and it is also resources. An exam doesn't improve anyone's education or their level of learning. The exam system is for grading people, not teaching them," Kelley, himself an OU graduate and former tutor, argues.
"The OU exists to improve knowledge and skills. It covers key skills and teaches different ways of learning. It better prepares students for full-time university because it is a university, and it prepares them for lifelong learning."
Dr Kelley has signed up alongside colleagues, parents and students for You, Your Computer, and the Net, starting next February, and it's this kind of hands-on involvement that seems an important contributor to the students' OU success.
In the project's first year, head of sixth form Margaret Chaytor studied with her students.
She recalls: "The second year didn't do as well and through that I learned that it is a necessity that someone takes a manager role. Since then I have brought the group together once a week so they can work on the course and with each other. And because I have done it I am able to tell them this is what you should be doing now.
"Most of the students are still goal-oriented. They want to know what it's worth and I will talk about what I feel are the strengths of this kind of study. It teaches them independent learning, about teamwork, and about time management - all the skills an employer will want."
Experience shows that rather than remaining with the OU for their full degree, the Monkseaton students still choose to go away to a conventional university.
"University life is not just about learning. It's about going away and meeting people", says Laura Spence, 17. "But the OU is different from A-levels where you sit there in the lesson and they spoonfeed you.
"At the OU you have to do the work for yourself. They teach you to learn independently."
"I would tell anyone who asked me, to think about it carefully because it is a lot of work," says Sarah Mackintosh, also 17. "I chose the OU because I'm doing English, Sociology and Media Studies and wanted something more academic to go with them.
"Working without teachers has been really positive."
Within the working group the discussion is likely to centre, not around such testimonials, but on how work with schools fits with the OU's main focus of providing higher education opportunities to adults, and the suitability for youngsters of materials written for adult learners.
Says Pro - Vice - Chancellor Allan Cochrane: "We believe we have a valuable contribution to make in introducing school pupils to the OU and to Higher Education in general, as well as broadening the curriculum available to sixth-formers.
"Our concern is how we can arrange such links on a national basis, given the workload involved and the large number of schools that might wish to discuss a scheme with us."
Jane MatthewsReuse content