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A hero shot from the series 'School' - characters from the series line-up in the gym


School follows the experiences of pupils, teachers, parents and school leaders, across an academic year.

About the programme

More public money is being spent on education than ever before, but financial pressures and the number of teachers quitting their profession continues to rise. This series unpicks the connections between key decisions and their human impact, right across the system.  

At stake is the future of Britain’s next generation. What should we expect of our teachers, our children and ourselves? Find out more on the BBC's programme page  or look below for articles written by OU academic consultants. 

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

School - About the programme

More on schools

Explore inclusion and wellbeing among students, and get a breakdown of the different types of school.

Colourful school lockers

12 things you need to know about inclusion in schools

Providing students with real learning opportunities in school is crucial, Dr Clare Woodward tells us what we need to know about inclusive education. 

Inclusive education, also called inclusion – is education that includes everyone learning together in mainstream schools, colleges and universities. If you look at the mission statements for schools in your area you will almost certainly find some mention of inclusive education.

The CSET multi-academy trust in the OU/BBC co-produced School series includes in their mission statement the following value: SA deep-rooted and continued commitment to inclusive education.

But what does ‘inclusion’ actually mean? If you google ‘inclusive education in UK schools’ you will be presented with a range of links and definitions. Some focus on ‘special educational needs’, while other perspectives define inclusive education as going well beyond one particular group of learners and encompassing all learners in schools.

In the series there are various different examples of how the CSET multi-academy trust deals with inclusive education. These include children with special educational needs, with behavioural issues, as well as the impact of pupil premium and wellbeing on inclusion. What is clear across the various stories is that economic and cost cutting decisions have implications for the Trust’s approach to inclusivity.

Two young female students working on respective laptops at a table

1: What is inclusive education?

It is a process of change and improvement within schools so that all children can be valued equally, treated with respect and provided with real learning opportunities.

2: What two types of support may a child be eligible for?

  • SEN support (Special Educational Needs) - support given in school, for example: speech therapy or behavioural support.
  • EHC (education, health and care) - a plan of care for children and young people aged up to 25 who have more complex needs.

3: What is a SENCO?

SENCO stands for Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator. They are qualified teacher in a school or maintained nursery school who has responsibility for co-ordinating SEN provision for students.

4: When is SEN provision needed?

Where provision is in addition to, or different from, typical provision for others of that age.

5: What are the 4 stages of SEN provision?

  • Assess
  • Plan
  • Do
  • Review

A group of primary school aged children raise their hands in the air. A grown-up woman is with them and she is also raising her arm out of shot.

6: What is an EHC Plan?

An EHC plan makes special education provision to meet the special educational needs of a child or young person in order to secure improved outcomes for him/her across education, health and social care and prepare them for adulthood.

7: What is a Local Offer?

Every local authority must identify education, health and social care services in their local area provided for children, young people and families who have SEN or disabilities and include them in an information directory.

8: Does ‘inclusion’ only refer to learners with special educational needs and disabilities? 

Inclusion should also engage with the broader issue of marginalisation. There is a range of learners who might be included here: traveller students, economically and socially disadvantaged students, minority linguistic and ethnic groups.

9: Do all disabled learners have a legal right to mainstream education?

Currently disabled pupils and students do not have an absolute ‘legal’ right to mainstream courses in mainstream educational settings.

10: Do disabled learners not have the legal right to individualised support?

Disabled pupils and students do not have an automatic entitlement to support whilst attending a mainstream educational setting.

11: What is Pupil Premium? 

Pupil Premium (PP) is a set sum of money given to all academy trust students from the Ministry of Education. This is additional funding for publicly funded schools in England. It's designed to help disadvantaged pupils of all abilities perform better, and close the gap between them and their peers.

12: Who is eligable for EHC?

An education, health and care (EHC) plan is for children and young people aged up to 25 who need more support than is available through special educational needs support.

School children drawing

So what is a ‘multi-academy trust'?

As an increasing number of state secondary schools become academies, Dr Jane Cullen examines the education system.


School lockers

Let’s start with the word ‘academy’. It’s a word that applies to state schools in England – schools in the rest of the UK are organised differently. An academy is not the same as a ‘community school’ or a ‘voluntary school’ or a ‘foundation school’ as all these types of school are controlled – to a greater or lesser extent – by local authorities. An academy – and related types of school such as a ‘free school’ - are schools funded by the central government but run as independent schools. An academy doesn’t have to follow the national curriculum or keep to usual school holidays. According to 2018 figures from the National Audit Office, 72% of state secondary schools in England are now academies

How a multi-academy trust works

These trusts are run on business lines – they are given funding from the government but they then make all of the decisions themselves about how the money is spent and how to balance the books – in this sense they are on their own.

A ‘multi-academy trust’ is a group of schools in partnership with each other, often but not always because they are geographically close to one another. Where a trust has both primary and secondary schools, it can be because those primary schools are the ‘feeder’ schools for the secondary schools in the trust. Some multi-academy trusts can have 30 or 40 schools, some will be a much smaller group of perhaps half a dozen. The trust featured in the OU/BBC co-produced School series has seven schools in it: four secondary schools and three primary schools. There are obvious advantages to working as a group of schools, for example in terms of creating common policies, streamlining, school organisation, sharing expertise – including schools in the trust lending staff to each other.  

This idea of schools sharing provision and learning directly from each other is a powerful one and something which has been an ambition of government for at least the last 20 years. For example there were ‘networked’ schools and ‘school federations’ back in the early 2000s, with the idea, in particular that this would enable less successful schools to learn from more successful ones. However the multi-academy trust takes this idea of a looser networking to the level of formally constituted partnership.

Nevertheless, the multi-academy trust model also has its fair share of critics. It has been an inevitable effect of this government policy that the wide ranging support previously offered by local authorities has been diminished or even eradicated altogether. These trusts are run on business lines – they are given funding from the government but they then make all of the decisions themselves about how the money is spent and how to balance the books – in this sense they are on their own.

Head teachers and a Chief Executive Officer

The OU/BBC series School features a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) – a role imported from the business world and, though the CEO is a former head teacher, his role is senior to all the head teachers of the individual schools. Throughout the series he is seen focusing on budgets, deficits, provision of services and cost reduction – and with very little emphasis on the teaching and learning in each of the schools, except for a close interest in exam results.

Critics of the trust model might question how extra layers of expensive management can be the best use of a budget under extreme pressure. As well there are perceptions in the series that the rewards in an academy can be very unequally shared. In an academy the school sets its own staff pay and conditions and for example we see in the series that this includes (or doesn’t include) performance related pay for staff based on their students’ GCSE results.

However the ‘multi-academy trust’ such as this one featured in this series is now an integral part of the school landscape in England. As you will see as the series progresses school finances are at the heart of every conversation – "there isn’t enough money", "there isn’t as much money as last year or the year before" and there is relentless pressure to address deficits by cutting what is offered to the students within the school.

Two school friends heading to class

Improving wellbeing in schools for a brighter future

Dr Clare Lee looks at why school students should leave secondary education with a high level of wellbeing and not just good exam results.

Wellbeing is important across society, happy people are more productive and suffer less ill-health and are, well, happier. Having a high level of wellbeing when leaving school is known to have a much greater impact on life outcomes than examination success. Wellbeing is acknowledged as important by governments across the UK and schools are charged with improving wellbeing. For example, mental health teams will be working in schools in England.

What causes wellbeing issues in school? This is a complex issue but bullying through the many digital social platforms accessed by young people is often cited as the cause. However the assessment system must also bear its share of the blame, as is seen in several episodes in the the OU/BBC co-produced School series. 

Taking action to avoid cyber-bullying

Boy looking at phone crying cyber-bullying

Photo by Ibraim Leonardo from Pexels

There are schools that reduce examination pressure by teaching in an interesting, engaging and often collaborative way so that the syllabus is discussed and explored, the students know what they know.

Schools can and do take wellbeing seriously, they teach their students about cyber-bullying and how to avoid it and they work hard to accommodate students who need different ways to access learning. They attempt to sort out the many varied problems that their students present. However, despite the workload they take on, we do not have a teaching workforce of wonder women and supermen, we have overworked and often overwhelmed teachers, who are doing their very best for their students. We cannot and must not ask them to do more, for the sake of their wellbeing. Teachers are already leaving the profession at an alarming rate.

The assessment system is currently used to hold schools accountable and schools can be condemned as failing, due to their results in the GCSE examinations taken by 16 year olds. Unsurprisingly teachers are under pressure to raise results at GCSE and they in turn put pressure on their students. In some secondary schools many students start answering GCSE questions right from the start at 11 years old. Schools hold extra revision sessions during holidays and after school, often starting a full year before GCSE, in order to try to ensure that examination results are as good as they can be. Students feel the pressure of the importance of these examinations and this often creates anxiety. Subjects that are known to increase students’ ability to deal with pressures at school, such as art, music and drama, are displaced in the curriculum to make room for more lessons in the subjects, such as mathematics, English and science, on which the school is judged.

Anxiety is not a good thing. When someone is anxious, often the freeze, fight or flight response is activated. This means that the brain is entirely focused on 'rescuing' the person from the situation, the thinking, reasoning and crucially the remembering parts of the brain are deactivated, making performing well in an examination almost impossible. High marks in these examinations are not crucial for the student – only for the school. Providing students perform reasonably well at GCSE they can enter an apprenticeship, take A-levels or move into other training, as they choose. They do not need A*s to take a productive place within society, it is the school that needs the A*s.

Taking the pressure out of exams

School girls studying school text-books

Photo by Mary Taylor from Pexels

What can be done? There are schools that reduce examination pressure by teaching in an interesting, engaging and often collaborative way so that the syllabus is discussed and explored, the students know what they know. When the time comes, how to succeed at an examination is learned in a similar way. The students are confident in what they know and know how to answer examination questions, anxiety is decreased and wellbeing increased.

If they really wish to take wellbeing seriously, UK governments could re-think the accountability system and ask whether it is increasing equity in educational opportunity in a way that would justify the effect it has on many young people. There are many examples around the world of accountability without putting students under pressure. Such systems often support schools to support all of its students, for example those in Canada and Finland. Mental health teams would be welcomed into most schools, but they must be properly funded, and not from the already overstretched school and young people’s mental health services budgets.

Wellbeing is a priceless gift for young people, can government and schools work together to give students this gift?

Meet the OU experts

Dr Jane Cullen Programme Lead: Masters in Education and Masters in Childhood and Youth
Dr Jane CullenSenior Lecturer (Leadership and Int. Development)VIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Jane Cullen Programme Lead: Masters in Education and Masters in Childhood and Youth
Dr Jane CullenSenior Lecturer (Leadership and Int. Development)

Before moving into Higher Education Jane was an English teacher, Head of Department, Senior Teacher and Head Teacher in various schools, beginning as a young teacher in the Philippines then moving to Sri Lanka, Uruguay, Namibia and finally to Egypt, specialising throughout in secondary school education. She heads the Masters in Education and Masters in Childhood and Youth programme at the OU which currently attracts about one thousand students, and specialises in Leadership and Management qualifications, which typically attract both serving and aspiring members of school leadership teams. 

Dr Clare Lee, Senior lecturer in education
Dr Clare LeeSenior Lecturer in EducationVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Clare Lee, Senior lecturer in education
Dr Clare LeeSenior Lecturer in Education

Clare's research is grounded in extensive professional experience as a mathematics teacher and as a local authority assessment consultant. Her current research concerns the improvement of learning and teaching and assessment both in mathematics and across the curriculum. One of the key outcomes of her work is the construct of “Mathematical Resilience”. Teaching for resilience requires a learning environment that is a positive place for the students where barriers to learning can be overcome. 

Dr Clare WoodwardLecturer in International EducationVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Clare WoodwardLecturer in International Education

In Clare's early career in education she worked in English Language teaching for more than ten years in secondary, tertiary and adult learning sectors in France, Malaysia and the Middle East including refugee education and then moved into widening participation in the UK so she has long-standing interest and experience in inclusion in education. She joined the OU in 2009 as a lecturer in Teacher Education and International Development, supporting the development of teachers and schools in Asia, Africa and South America. She has also extensively explored the potential of digital technologies as tools for professional development and pedagogic practice, in both developed and developing economy contexts.

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