2 September 2020
It is said that out of every crisis opportunities arise, and, despite the chaos of this year’s A-level and GCSE results, the pandemic crisis has certainly presented schools with the opportunity to develop online learning and show how a first class education can be delivered remotely.
Teachers are often tarnished with a reputation for being slow to respond to change and adapt to technology, compared with the commercial sector. However, what the past six months has shown is that, when staff and pupils have access to the will, the technology – and a strong Wi-Fi signal (!) – they are remarkably agile and creative when it comes to delivering education online.
Since schools closed on 19 March, online learning has quickly become the norm for some, including GSA schools such as my own. Teachers upskilled at a remarkable pace to deliver a full curriculum remotely, including co-curricular activities, pastoral care and, for post-GCSE and A-level students, comprehensive programmes of enrichment courses throughout the summer term.
Of course, the ability to deliver a remote timetable in this way is dependent on the resources available to both schools and pupils and, for many, online learning simply hasn’t been possible. Globally, I was fascinated to see countries, where internet-enabled technologies are less readily available to children, embrace more traditional media, with TV and radio channels broadcasting educational content. In the UK, there is ongoing concern about the widening disparity between those with and without access to education. The National Foundation for Educational Research concluded that four out of 10 pupils in England have not been in regular contact with teachers and a third of pupils have not been engaged with their lessons.
Some GSA schools responded by posting publicly available online resources, teaching and learning ideas, virtual assembly topics and so on. Where strong partnerships exist, there has been a sharing of online provision between independent and state schools. This is the case at my school, where our students and those from our partner school in the state sector were able to share resources and even join together for some lessons.
To begin with, online learning inevitably raised concerns around protocols. We ensured that pupils and staff blurred their screen backgrounds to maintain privacy, that pupils were dressed appropriately for lessons – not in their pyjamas – and that the more reluctant learners didn’t log onto a lesson, turn off their camera and go and do something else for the hour. New protocols, classroom etiquettes and behaviour management were quickly established so that we could focus on ‘business as usual’.
During lockdown, thousands of pupils have continued to ’go to school’ at home, thanks to online platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Google Meets. We have even been able to continue teaching students across the globe, who would otherwise have been boarding in the UK or staying with a local family.
A combination of live classes, recorded lessons and set work meant we could deliver the timetable as well as build in time for consultations with tutors and pastoral staff and parent-teacher meetings to report on student progress. Many schools even managed to deliver their traditional end-of-term speech/prize day online, complete with music, video clips and other forms of entertainment to keep the remote community engaged.
The feedback from pupils has been overwhelmingly positive. They have engaged with a creative, new way of learning in a medium which of course is second nature to this technologically able generation. The extensive and intensive use of screen time is extremely tiring and so adaptations to the timetable were made to manage this. Nevertheless, teachers have reported positively on pupils’ levels of engagement and progress. Pupils have developed greater resilience and independence in their learning, helping them to become more confident learners.
Above all, our experience is that online education has enabled pupils to maintain daily contact with their school and keep alive that important sense of belonging to a school community. For many, this has been essential to their wellbeing and mental health when forced to be physically separated from friends and normal day to day activities for such an extended period.
What now? September brings a commitment for all schools to open, but the months ahead remain uncertain as we continue to navigate this ‘new normal’ and local lockdowns seem likely.
For schools such as my own, knowing we can revert to tried-and-tested online learning is enormously reassuring, and I would urge any school which is confident in its online provision to consider – with other schools who may not have been so fortunate – how they might best share their new knowledge, resources and even perhaps online lessons, not only in the event of another lockdown, but also in the spirit of ongoing development in teaching and learning for all children. Collaboration of this kind is by no means a panacea to all the obstacles that so many schools found themselves facing during lockdown, but I believe that, when faced with those things that are possible, it is incumbent on us to do them.
Lockdown has forced us to innovate. Among the many challenges we still face is not to forget our new-found technological savvy, but to embrace and use it in and beyond the classroom in ‘normal’ school. I am absolutely unequivocal that online education cannot replace the benefits of being physically present in school. A school, after all, is so much more than lessons. However, while I am looking forward to the voices of pupils filling our buildings again – no doubt alongside the voices of teachers reminding us to keep to the one-way system! – I am also excited and intrigued to see how we, teachers and pupils, assimilate and gain from our new skills and knowledge.
Samantha Price, GSA president-elect and headmistress of Benenden School
This blog first appeared on the Independent Schools Council website.