Summer school

S357 Revision Weekend, York 2004



The White Paper on the University of the Air, 1966, proposed that the teaching provided via correspondence television and radio ‘will be reinforced by residential courses and tutorials’. The Report of the Planning Committee, 1969, stated: We recognise the great advantage that can accue from face-to-face meetings, which will be provided for by the short residential courses proposed’. An early Senate made attendance at residential schools compulsory and reinforced that decision in 1970 when it was questioned by the Faculty of Technology.


In 1973 Peter Montagnon (a member of the BBC Schools Television Department who produced the first television language-speaking series, ‘Parliamo Italiano’ andbecame Head of Open University Productions nine months before its first year of operation), reflected on them:

Once a year – and this is mandatory during the foundation year – the students go to a Summer School for one week. The Schools themselves are spread over hospitable campuses from Exeter University in the South to Aberdeen in the North. The idea of the Summer School is to do several very important things, one of which is to bring the students studying individual disciplines together as a body, so that they can meet and discuss common problems in the subject area. And not just to meet between themselves, but also to talk to their Open University lecturers in the flesh, and to the many guest Lecturers called from other universities who come to take part in the operation – I think there were about 400 last year. And talk to them these students do – from breakfast-time to bedtime non-stop. This is an exhilarating experience for them all but, I suspect, particularly so for the Lecturers from the more conventional universities. It is the reversal of the situation that is to be found on so many of our campuses. It’s fashionable at the moment for conventional students – and I use the word ‘conventional’ deliberately – to ignore their lecturers as men with nothing to say, nothing to teach that is worth learning. Well the reverse of this happens at the Open University Summer Schools. The students not only want to hear what their lecturers have to say, they pursue them – almost hunt them down – until they have said it. 

Transcript of a seminar in 1973. See Peter Montagnon, The media and educational development, a seminar held in Dublin,21-22 February, 1973, RTE Education, Dublin, 1974, p.50.


In 1974 Hilary Perraton raised the question of the benefits of social networking in relation to course content:

The subject matter of most university courses is fairly far removed from the immediate concerns of most communities, our distance students can’t learn within a natural network of this kind. I this means that the euphoria that you get, from all accounts that I’ve seen, from Open University students at summer schools, is very easily explicable. It’s the attraction of getting within the social situation in which students can learn together. I’m sure that sort of euphoria is valuable, but whether it’s as valuable as the amount of money you spend on it, I think that is question worth looking at.

Hilary Perraton ‘Is there a teacher in the system?’ Teaching at a distance, 1, November 1974, pp. 55-60 (p58).


However, in 1975 Naomi McIntosh concluded  a paper which addressed the questions as to who summer schools keep out of the OU and who they kept in, that ‘probably nobody would argue against foundation course summer schools remaining compulsory’. N McIntosh, ‘The place of the summer school in the Open University’, Teaching at a distance, 3, May 1975, pp. 48-60 (p.59).


A year later Mike hey started to teach at an OU residential school.

Mike Hey was a maths Tutor at Stirling Summer Schools, 1976-1996. His account and this image can be found at Source

Tutor Mike Hey (page 9) recalled:

After dinner, things began in earnest. The “set book” for the Maths Foundation Course (M100 at that time) was Polya’s “How to solve it”, and the first session was to be a group problem-solving exercise involving the well-known problem of the number of areas formed by n intersecting lines, extended to n intersecting planes. There were some impediments to my success in this venture:

a) I didn’t know the answer

b) I wasn’t at all sure that I understood the question

c) All the other tutors appeared to have mastered both a) and b), and

d) I had little hope that any of my group of students would know what to do either.

My expressed fears in this area were dismissed by the Course Director with a wave of the hand and a comment to the effect that “it’s much better if you don’t know what to do; the students can follow your problem-solving processes better”. (This was my one point of disagreement with OU philosophy throughout my summer school career – I did not, and still do not, believe that the interests of the students are best served by the fuddled machinations of tutors who don’t know what they’re doing). To cut a long story short, my fears were realised. I talked a lot, wrote a lot on the blackboard, came out in hot and cold sweats, and at the end of the hour neither I nor the students were any the wiser as to a) or b) above.

Further recollections

Sir John Daniel also had fond memories of Summer School. Initially working at the OU as part of an internship he was later the Vice-Chancellor and the author of a Master’s in Educational Technology (his thesis is about mega-universities). Reflecting in 2010 (here) he said:

That summer of 1972 in the UK was a conversion experience. I saw the future of higher education and wanted to be part of it. Everything was hugely impressive and stimulating. First there was the scale: the Open University already had 40,000 students in its second year of operation. Second came the idealism: here were people who walked the talk on access and student-centred pedagogy. Third, there was palpable love of learning: the students were unbelievably motivated by the opportunity presented to them. I went to one of the residential summer schools where students spent a full day in labs, seminars and field trips and then most of the night in the bar; continuing the academic discourse. Fourth, I was captivated by the media and technology: my key task was to help develop computer-marked assignments that tested advanced cognitive skills, but I spent every spare moment viewing the brilliant BBC television programmes. This exposure to the future of higher education infected me with the virus of open and distance learning.

Pedagogic benefits

U206, Popular culture was launched in 1982. It drew on a range of theoretical sources including E P Thompson, Theodor Adorno, FR Leavis and Pierre Bourdieu and included a Summer School. Most Summer Schools were held in locations with other summer schools, which aided economies of scale but this one, being the only one in Preston his was more expensive than most to run. Sean Cubitt (‘Cancelling Popular Culture’, Screen, 32, 6 1986, pp. 91-93 (pp91-92) however, stressed its importance to the course:

What makes it manageable for students, the vast majority of whom have never bathed in Barthes or grappled with Gramsci, is the highly structured, if at times patronising, way in which the materials are presented, drawing on TV and radio programmes and audio cassettes1 as well as heavily illustrated course units and back-up printed materials, tutorials, tutor-marked assignments and, crucially, the Summer School, which students attend for a week at Preston, Lancashire.

I want to dwell on the Summer School here. It comes at a point when the students have fought their way through the densest theoretical elements of the course, and have arrived at Colin Mercer’s excellent but demanding unit on Pleasure. The Summer School is designed to cope with their difficulties, to work through concepts of hegemony, ideology and pleasure, to provide spaces where students can air their problems with the course and pursue their learning in new directions. Alongside a range of other activities, each student follows three modules of 1½ days each: ‘Stars’, focusing on Monroe and Eastwood and dealing specifically with theories of narrative, spectacle and identification; ‘Images of the Nation’, which investigates and problematises the production of ‘Britishness’; and ‘Blackpool’, whose themes are summarised on one tutor’s T-shirt as ‘ozone, Bill Cotton, Coralisation’ (health spas, quality recreation and the industrialisation of leisure). Perhaps the best way to indicate the pedagogical implications of the study of Blackpool is to quote from a letter from a student at this year’s Summer School, Rachel Murrel [dated 12 August 1986 and addressed to course tutorsl:

Throughout the week there seemed to be a tacit agreement to allow students to maintain a distance between themselves and the cultural forms they were studying. Thus racist, sexist and homophobic ‘jokes’ went unchallenged. We are fully aware that this was not a socialist or feminist conference, and that it was not solely the responsibility of tutors to tackle such issues. Nevertheless some of us felt that more could have been done to problematise such ‘humour’ within the teaching framework. Where belter than a U203 Summer School? In this context, various people argued that the distinction between two kinds of popular culture – texts and lived experience – was not sufficiently brought out during the week. By letting students ‘view’ Blackpool in the same way that they ‘view’ Some Like It Hot, the question of why and how we derive pleasure from the tits-and-bums of the Central Pier loses significance. Surely the Blackpool module at least provides an opportunity to ask how those tits-and-bums speak to our day-to-day attitudes towards sexuality and the social order and it does so even more than the Stars module because it is dealing with lived experience. 


It is precisely this order of challenge that the pedagogies and contents of the Summer School are designed to raise….

For those with access to the OU Library the rest of the article is here

One Response to “Summer school”

  1. Oh(U) dear. The Independent blurs the line between fact and fiction « Just One More Ten Pence Piece … Says:

    […] I can’t believe that OU students don’t want to go to “summer school” anymore (or “residential school”, to give them their proper title). For example, you only have to see the positive reviews from students who loved the residential version of the psychology project compared to the mixed reviews for its online equivalent to start to question this assertion. And even if OU student’s don’t like attending residential schools, it’s no reason not to insist on them for pedagogical reasons – as the History of the OU blog points out. […]

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