Open Eye: Time to speak up for summer schools

Despite anything that has appeared in the popular prints, the OU has no plans to phase out residential schools. They are and will continue to be a major part of the Open University experience for many students. Each year some new courses opt for residential schools, and others decide to concentrate on other approaches - as in the case of the new introductory social science course, DD100

.

What is true is that the current system of residential schools is being looked at in the light of a number of factors, not the least being an increase in the number of students seeking excusal from attendance. The current review may result in changes - including attendance at some schools becoming optional rather than compulsory. On the other hand the introduction of 'named degrees', from 2000, will in many cases require students to have attended certain residential schools.

Here John Kirkaldy mounts a robust defence of the present system

Now is the time for everybody that knows the Open University to speak up for Summer School. One of the most precious parts of OU study is being menaced from all sides. Increasing fees and the recent decision by the Social Science Faculty to drop Summer School from the new foundation course, DD100, which starts in 2000, highlight what is becoming erosion of support for this vital part of the OU experience.

I must declare an interest. I have spent nearly a year of my life tutoring at Summer School and I would not have missed it for the world. (Compared to some, however, I am a spring chicken; there are those who are well past this milestone!) Every indication from students is that the overwhelming majority likes and benefits from Summer School.

The present situation, where not all courses have a Summer School, gives those who are not keen to go every year, or who do not like to go at all, ample opportunity to avoid this experience if it does not suit them.

In any case, I am not telling tales out of school when I say that if somebody is very determined to avoid Summer School, then it is not too difficult to work the rule book to gain excusal.

The sneaking suspicion is that the OU is getting lukewarm over Summer School, not on educational grounds but on financial ones. Denials from men and women in grey suits only increase suspicion: we must all fight to keep them.

I appeal to all students doing Summer School this year (or who have done one recently) to make clear their support. Write letters and fill out those wretched questionnaires. Inundate academics at Walton Hall, safe in their ivory towers, with letters of complaint. Tell the dignitaries at degree ceremonies how much it meant to you.

I have been a teacher all my working life and find that Summer School is some of the most rewarding work that I do. Only teaching in a third world country, where education is very valued, has given me such satisfaction. Education is a peculiar profession, in as much as that the higher up you go, the less teaching you actually do.

..Until you become a Vice-Chancellor, Principal or Head Teacher when you probably do little or none at all!

Even at relatively low levels, you find yourself increasingly working out budgets, moving piles of paper work and filling out forms.

Most of us came into education with a love of our subject and a desire to make it come alive. Summer School rekindles and supports this enthusiasm.

What is so unique about it is the coming together of tutors and students from all over Britain. Every one is different. Nearly all weeks are good and some are vintages.

The truth is that university is often wasted on the young. I spent four years as an undergraduate and postgraduate in the same building as two Nobel prize winners - men who changed the nature of philosophy and economics. It never occurred to me to go to their lectures for the very poor reason that they did not come on my courses' syllabuses.

As a historian, I have grown used to spotty teenagers explaining to me why Napoleon (who after all did conquer most of Europe and change its society forever) got it completely wrong. You also know that the zenith of this individual's initiative is probably getting to the centre of the city on a bus.

What is so exhilarating about Summer School is that here are men and women who know something about life and are more than willing to meet the tutor half way. They want to be there but have given up a valuable week to do so. They have also paid out good money and this puts tutors on their mettle.

I have taught people in all walks of life - from croupiers to army snipers. I have had a student complaining that you cannot get servants and one living rough in a telephone box.

I have taught the famous, such as Connie Booth from Fawlty Towers, and some who at the beginning of the week were so shy that they hardly dared speak.

Many years ago I taught a man who could only have been a retired naval captain, who sat next to a wonderful lady, who was one of Britain's first female long-distance truck drivers.

They shared a common love of poetry; the captain was also overwhelmed on meeting a woman who could out- swear him!

All the feedback to me is that students really benefit. The chance to study without distractions is welcome and it is no surprise to find that many groups hold reunions and keep in touch - often years after they first met.

I once stood next to a reporter from one of the tabloids at a School party at Bath, while he waited to see if he could dish the dirt on any goings on. He got very bored, listening to the usual chat of philosophers - on life and death, the meaning of existence and why Liverpool usually beat Everton. He made his excuses early and left.

This is not to say that Summer School cannot be improved or that we should be complacent. I deplore the fact that virtually no county now pays for Summer School study. Perhaps we should look at alternatives in some cases for accommodation and facilities. Weekends and day schools have their place but they are not the real thing.

No fee rises above the rate of inflation must be a budget priority. So too must as many avenues for payment for students as is possible. If we water down or loose the whole Summer School experience, then we will have destroyed something of incalculable benefit.

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