Facts about the OU you may not know

Source: The Open University

Source: The Open University

I am proud to represent and promote The Open University. Why? Because the institution is becoming somewhat of a phenomenon. Shadow Universities Minister, Liam Byrne MP, described The Open University and it’s learning and research as a vital part “of the future of Britain.”

So, here are a few of the facts you may or may not know about The Open University.


The Open University is in fact the largest university in the UK. With over 200,000 students learning at any one time and 4 in 10 of all UK part-time undergraduates choosing the OU, the university is actually larger than any of the mainstream, campus universities.


FACT: The average age of a new undergraduate is 30. With over a quarter of students aged between 17-25, it is clear that flexibility and opportunities to earn and learn are some of the factors that are influencing younger students.


The National Student Survey (NSS) ranks The Open University in the top ten for student satisfaction. In 2013, the OU came eighth. Student experience included working at their own pace, access to online materials, social networks and facilities in each region. In 2012/2013, the university had a 92% satisfaction rating.


Over 70% of students are in full-time or part-time employment and four out of five FTSE 100 companies have sponsored their staff to take OU courses.


The UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise ranked The Open University in the top third of UK higher education institutions. More than 50% of OU research was assessed as internationally excellent, with 14% as world leading.


The OU is seen as Britain’s most important e-learning institution, with research and development in technology to increase access to education. Materials are available through iTunes which has recorded over 60 million downloads. The university emphasises and utilises social media, alongside promoting opportunities to get involved through the student association.


The SCONUL access scheme: this allows students from The Open University to use any university library in the UK, whether to have a place of study or simply to borrow a book. I think this is simply a brilliant idea.


The Open University runs special events and meet-ups, face-face tutorials and the OU conference allows students to be involved at the Milton Keynes Campus or online. Utilising social networks and online forums can be very helpful and the SCONUL access scheme allows you in to any university library, so it may be new people from further afield who you meet.


Or so to speak. There are hundreds of free courses to try on OpenLearn which give a flavour of what being an Open University is really about. The OU prides itself on being a world leader in the development of Open Educational Resources and is always trying new ways of teaching and learning.


A 41 year partnership between two great institutions. Programmes include Frozen Planet, Bang Goes the Theory and The Money Programme.


Yes. Anyone can. With the support The OU offers, to anybody with any ability is incredible. There is great career guidance and plenty of support from the student support team and tutors. It is an incredibly different and refreshing way of learning.

The place to visit for all things Open University is http://www.open.ac.uk.

‘Educating Yorkshire’ highlights true admiration for our teachers

“Teachers have walked out in a dispute over pay and pensions…” It’s a phrase we hear all too often in our newspapers and on our television screens. You could be forgiven for thinking teachers have had an easy ride over the past years, with squeezes on pay, pensions, demand of work and conditions. Channel 4’s ‘Educating’ series, this year based in Yorkshire, has highlighted the real wealth of admiration our teachers across the land deserve. Teachers in the United Kingdom need more recognition.

Following the success of previous series ‘Educating Essex’, this 2013 observational documentary focussed on a failing school, Thornhill Academy, in Yorkshire. The course of the series laid bare the failures of the school and how head teacher, Mr Mitchell, represented as a hero amongst society, aimed to turn the fortunes of the school around. Indeed, he succeeded. Throughout, the head insisted he believes the success of the school should be based on whether his students are polite, respectful and prepared young adults ready for the ‘real world’. Regardless of exam results, if the school does not prepare the students for work and life beyond education, in his own words, Mr Mitchell said “we have failed them.”

The welfare of our students has become a top priority in the United Kingdom. Reports of abuse, neglect and failings amongst local councils have hit the headlines, suggesting children are at “risk”. Throughout the ‘Educating Yorkshire’ series, the overwhelming sense was that the school, any school, is a sanctuary. A place for young people to go, be fed, be taught and be safe. Certainly through my experiences, school is a family, a community, being encouraged to work to the best of your ability because that is a good thing. Today, much of our education system has seen u-turns and constant focus on results.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has made a number of decisions that have shown lack of insight into our modern students and teacher abilities. The desire to scrap modular exams and coursework in favour of a single end of year exam has received little support from those in the profession. Students told Labour Leader Ed Miliband, in Warrington earlier this month, they felt stressed and uneasy that these exams could replace a system that allows students strengths and weaknesses to be explored. Proposed changes to the GCSE and A Level courses, only to be scrapped, have led head teachers to warn that the education and curriculum are becoming a maze of confusion with teachers unable to plan and priorities changing very often.

The Thornhill Academy may not be the best school in the country producing top results, but throughout the pioneering documentary, the sense of students being encouraged to reach their own personal targets has been most uplifting. Stereotypically, some may say, the students come from diverse backgrounds. It takes a real inspirational individual to encourage them to do well. Last night, the final programme in the series was eye-watering. Whilst many students prepared for their final exams, there was one student and teacher who were the limelight. A shining example of why so much recognition is needed for teachers.

Musharaf Ashgar, referred to as ‘Mushy’, was shown struggling with a stammer described as “one of the worst” by his teachers. The frustration on the face of the year 11 student was apparent as he struggled to get any words out ahead of his final speaking exam. The tale of his bullying and determination to overcome the obstacles in his way was moving beyond words. The support from his head of year and other liaison staff dictated how hard, how supportive and how encouraging our teachers are. The true moment of inspiration was in the form of English teacher, Matthew Burton, who, in the face of tackling Mushy’s stammer, referred to movie The Kings Speech, encouraging the Year 11 student to listen to music and speak at the same time. It was a moment of unanimous joy. For one of the first moment in a life time, Musharaf read aloud, confidently, his speaking exam.

Speaking in his final assembly, with a pair of white headphones, Musharaf thanked his friends, colleagues and teachers for their help in “finding his voice”. For those teachers who had built a rapport with the student from the moment he stepped foot in the school door, the tears and faces were of pride, joy and profound happiness that their student had overcome his speech disorder. As his friends were moved in the audience of his warming speech, so were the viewers of a programme that had brought emotion to so many. Thousands turned to Twitter to express their overpowering sense of sentiment that a thirty year old male English teacher could inspire and help a young man overcome a disorder that had ruled his life for so very long.

The entire last programme featured Mr Burton helping his less than motivated year 11 English class. His charm, cheekiness, humorous yet authoritative role as the teacher helped bridged the gap and created common ground between student and teacher. His methods of active learning, encouraging students to rhythmically understand certain linguistic functions and assisting each individual with their personal needs shows how inspirational teachers are. In result, Musharaf gained his C grade, as did the majority in his class. Yes, the results speak for themselves, but keeping a challenging group of students in awe of English is another thing. Truly remarkable.

Often, when teaching unions go on strike, there is much criticism that they are harming our children’s education, destroying the economy and causing unnecessary disruption. The ‘Educating Yorkshire’ series has highlighted a number of clear issues. Teachers are not just teachers. They are carers, listeners, helpers and motivators. The programme highlighted bullying, gang trouble, family issues and relationship trouble. Our teachers may not be experts in every field, but they certainly have experience. They do go beyond the needs of the classroom. Go beyond the call of duty was vast. Not many other professions seek to stay behind after school helping children with their educational needs. Not many professionals would go to work when visibly very ill indeed. Above all, our teachers help inspire a generation. Without Mr Burton, Musharaf would still be seeking to overcome his stammer. Many will say it was not the way to treat the speech problem. It worked.

I admire Channel 4 for their ground-breaking and perceptive documentaries. For many parents what happens in school stays in school. Very little is given away by the children. This documentary shows exactly what goes on inside school. Not all brilliant, but the emphasis, enthusiasm and care our teachers give in what is, at times, a challenging environment, cannot be questioned. Teachers in the UK deserve admiration and applause.

Gove out of touch ?

Less than 24 hours after criticising teachers for planned strikes, Education Secretary Michael Gove has put his foot in the deepening hole again. This time he has suggested that children need their own bedroom to study, despite a controversial government policy that effectively forces children to share bedrooms in the so called “bedroom tax”.

Mr Gove defended comments by minister Nick Bole saying people need a “room of one’s own” adding that “There are children, poor children, who do not have a room of their own in which to do their homework, in which to read, in which to fulfil their potential.” Today, the minister has come under fire again for his comments which have been described by some critics as being “hypocritical”.

The government’s highly divisive Bedroom Tax expects that children in council or housing association accommodation should share a room and that same-sex children should only have their own room when 16 years old. If the rules of the policy are broken then the family household is deemed to have a spare bedroom and benefits to the family can be cut by up to 14%.

So it’s a question of who the government ministers actually want to support? There is much speculation from voters that those represent the country are out of touch and surely the latest gaffe from Gove is a clear indication of unprofessionalism toward working class families. Essentially, if Mr Gove wants children to develop, read and remain enthusiastic about education, then these taxes and funding cuts hanging over the heads of working class families are going to need to be abolished. The comments from what appears to be a deluded Education Secretary are very much out of touch and look to favour those of middle and higher social classes. For those children fortunate to have a bedroom each, there is a sense of development and freedom, but the comments are ill-timed given financial situations, economic and infrastructure issues and negative representations toward certain sectors of society.

It isn’t the first time Mr Gove has been left red faced and embarrassed. His U-turns on his own education policies including the scrapping of a new GCSE format, the English Baccalaureate and homework guidelines. Headteachers have called for a calm as the new school term begins, suggesting that too many shake ups and U-turns on the curriculum have left students the victim of uncertainty and confusion, inevitably reflective in this year’s national exam results. The latest comments suggesting teachers should “see the error of their ways” in the wake of an announcement of strike action before Christmas have certainly sparked anger from teachers and unions across the land. The contradictory words about the need for one bedroom per child is certainly downgrading toward struggling families and complete ignorance toward his government policies.

It has been an uncertain time for the PM and his ministers over the weeks. Recently losing out the vote on military action in Syria led to suggestions the government was ill informed and quick to make hasty decisions. With no backing from MP’s the vote has been deemed a landmark for UK politics. As the uncertainty continues and a general election looming in 2015, what Michael Gove has done is send the current coalition further into a deep grave.

‘Breaking News’ – The snow is back.

ITV News presenters Mary Nightingale and Alastair Stewart bring us the latest on the snow.

ITV News presenters Mary Nightingale and Alastair Stewart bring us the latest on the snow.

British news has once again been dominated by the old trouble maker herself, the weather. Again. But is it really necessary for this same old story about travel disruption, power cuts and how we are coping in the “freezing conditions” to have the worthy of nearly half the air time of an evening news bulletin? I think not.

There is a clear argument for the reports on the weather, keeping viewers informed with any disruption to their travels and whether or not their kid’s school is closed. But surely this kind of news can be kept for a short update within a local news bulletin. News of how many schools have been closed in Wales and Northern Ireland is most irrelevant to a viewer in Newcastle. There is an art of recycling when it comes to weather news reports. The standard procedure applies as follows: Top headline about snow; travel disruption because of the snow; how people have been “battling the elements”; a warning from police not to travel; and of course, the question everyone wants to know – is more on the way? I guarantee if you watch a news bulletin on a ‘snow day’ this procedure or near abouts will be the one that dominates.

When it comes to reporting on the snowy conditions and “treacherous driving conditions”, there is an element of shock. That shock, however, is that the expense of other motorists. For instance, a common report on the travel disruption begins with scenes of motorways around the country which appear dangerous and un-driveable. But then follows the repeated phrase, “a number of accidents…” which then leads into footage of cars off the road, often in ditches, recognising how very dangerous the roads are. Sometimes there will be dramatic footage from a camera phone showing a car, sometimes a bus, sliding in icy surfaces. Very shocking. But then again, why would any driver be so careless to pass through icy conditions and put their own lives at risk? The ordinary viewer, who hasn’t ventured out because of the cold, voices their opinions within the family – “stupid”, “idiot”, “why didn’t they stay at home” – So whilst the reports do highlight the somewhat incompetence of drivers who ignore previous warnings, they highlight the danger on the roads, underlying the message of the danger in the snow and NOT TO TRAVEL..(unless absolutely 100% vital, of course).

Another regular feature which appears on ‘snow day’ news programmes is the art of crossing from the cosy and warm newsroom to the arctic like conditions of the Lake District, Glasgow, Belfast, Buxton, Cornwall and Cardiff (not always used), in the traditional ‘sweep’ around the country to get the wider picture. Mainly so a viewer in the south can comment on how much snow they have had compared to the North. Then follows the ‘Live OB’ – the Outside Broadcast. “Lets cross to Cumbria and get the latest from there…” proclaims the newsreader and then follows one of the single most depressing shots for anyone who wants to be a part of news – one of the country’s brilliant TV journalists, used to battling court room dramas and breaking news, stands freezing, covered in snow and red-faced, in a farmer’s field. There has to be some admiration for these reporters who brave the conditions to bring us the details of what is happening. Although, quite a lot of the time, the closures, conditions and power cuts that are being experienced in Scotland are quite the same to those in Cardiff. It is an endless ‘arctic circle’.

At one time, it used to be a novelty to have a news bulletin dedicated to the ‘chaos’ that the snow has brought. Nowadays, with climate change and differences to our weather patterns, snow is bedding down more regular. Where I live, between Liverpool and Manchester, there have been around four different snowfalls in the past six months! Despite that the same reports and information surface – Don’t travel unless necessary; check with your tour operator; stay indoors; check on your neighbours. Compare that to the United States where snow drifts are vast and we look like a country that can’t cope with the white stuff. The news is supposed to be an operation that provides the latest new news. Although each snowfall is new the news that surrounds it is far from that.

So don’t forget to take care in the snow and of course, in the words of great journalists and presenters, “don’t travel if it’s not essential.”