2 December 2020
As a Microsoft School, Malvern St James Girls’ School delivered a comprehensive and very successful Remote Learning Programme from the offset of lockdown last March, and the feedback that we had from both pupils and parents has been overwhelmingly positive. The School’s strategic plan to deliver digital literacy meant that we were already investing in our E learning before the pandemic struck. We were therefore able to quickly adapt to continue with our full educational programme via Microsoft Teams. Pupils were able to follow their existing timetables, which meant that they had access to live teacher-led lessons for all their subjects, but they also had access to a rich co-curricular schedule, including music, choir, drama, assemblies, clubs, competitions, charity events and even our annual Commemoration and Prizegiving services. Yes, things were different, but we worked hard to replicate a normal school day and our strong school community ethos shone through – Malvern St James is an incredible community.
The findings from the Independent Schools Council (ISC) Survey on Remote Learning showed overwhelming support from our parents, with Malvern St James results consistently well above those of the sector for all leading independent schools. For example, an impressive 85.2% of our parents reported the School had offered remote learning within a week of the government making its initial decision to require schools to close in March 2020. This compared highly favourably with the 75.4% result for all ISC participating schools. Equally, when asked to score how the School handled the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic on a scale of 1-10, with 10 equating to exceptionally well, 45.6% of our parents who took part scored the School as 10. This too compared favourably with the 37% of parents from all ISC participating schools who gave 10 as their score.
Managing and adjusting to the Coronavirus pandemic has certainly thrown up some significant challenges in schools across the country, but we are proud to have met these head-on at Malvern St James with enthusiasm, creativity, determination and most important of all, teamwork. Collaboration and communication between teachers, pupils, and parents – ‘the golden triangle’ – means that we work together to support the girls in every way we can. We want to provide certainty, routine and structure to each day at a time when routines have changed, and uncertainty remains.
The promotion of balance and positive mental health is central to our planning. Keeping in touch and feeling part of School is incredibly important with regards to wellbeing and we all appreciate the difficulties and anxieties that some pupils are coping with during these unprecedented times. During lockdown, wherever possible teachers created new resources and set tasks which allowed pupils to work away from the screen, but at the same time ensured face-to-face delivery of lessons, with time for an explanation of tasks and resources, individual or group discussion, questions and feedback. Assemblies, form tutor time or 1:1 tutorials with teachers followed registration and slightly shortened lessons allowed for breaks and movement away from a desk.
During the Remote Learning period, School ran as much as normal. The day started as usual at 08:20 for formal registration and a chance for pupils to catch up with their form teacher and friends. Pupils then followed their regular school timetable with live lessons. Teachers worked very hard to find new ways of working and the practical subjects such as Music, Drama, PE and Food and Nutrition continued unabated. Where safety and resources allowed, even science experiments were conducted on-line, with pupils undertaking and recording their own work to share with the class. There was so much spontaneous creativity as teachers looked to adapt their lessons to engage and motivate pupils online. They created opportunities where work could be completed in a range of formats and then uploaded to Microsoft Teams or Class Notebook to allow for assessment and teacher feedback. We also took advantage of the time gained from the cancellation of external exams to organise a rigorous post-half term bridging course organised for our Year 11 and 13 pupils, which proved to be excellent preparation for both university life and new A Level courses.
We were delighted to be back in School in September, and our E learning offer has accelerated further. We are now delivering what we refer to as Blended Learning. This is actually more complicated than Remote Learning as we are not only teaching face to face in class but are also using technology to ‘call in’ pupils who may be out of School for quarantine/self-isolation reasons so that they can also access live lessons. All teaching and learning resources are posted on Teams and uploaded to Class Notebook. Electronic whiteboards and other Apps are used to support collaborative work and teaching material is cast to large digital screens at the front of the classrooms, simultaneously sharing the same resources with pupils at home. Lessons are recorded and posted onto Teams to allow those pupils who may be in different time zones to catch up at their convenience. This method of working gives us maximum flexibility and will allow us to move seamlessly between Blended Learning and Remote Learning, should the need arise, meaning that we can continue to deliver the very best teaching and learning provision – which of course is our top priority.
Our commitment to E learning as part of our ongoing strategy to develop digital literacy has resulted in significant investment in our IT infrastructure and software. We have upgraded the technology in our teaching spaces, moving to large digital screens, which when coupled with teachers’ Surface Pros, additional cameras and microphones, allow both teachers and pupils to cast their work and for pupils at home to share in the experience. If teachers are off school because of self-isolation, they too can be cast into the classroom and can continue to teach from there. This is quite an incredible thing to witness and certainly demonstrates both the power of technology and the digital skill and ‘can-do’ attitude of Malvern St James staff. Pupils have their own devices and can collaborate digitally in lessons on shared documents and learning platforms whilst allowing those at home to join in with class discussion. The move to MSJ Teams means that all work is shared digitally, with both assignments and assessments being submitted and marked largely online. However, we are flexible in the way that pupils wish to work and mindful that they will need to continue to write in external exams. Therefore, although many use their own devices, they still practise using pen and paper, and any hand-written work can be photographed and uploaded to Class Notebook.
The Prep Department have bespoke provision for each year group, reflecting the differing needs, independence and IT skills of the younger years and an even greater emphasis is placed on restricting screen time wherever possible. During Remote Learning, pupils received a weekly timetable with clear instructions and explanations of the work and activities for each day and teachers continued to deliver a wide range of wonderfully creative live lessons. At the same time, exceptionally high levels of pastoral support were maintained. The Prep Department is able to utilise a combination of Tapestry, Microsoft Teams and email, with face to face lessons, tutor time and 1:1 meetings. Currently, in our Blended Learning environment, a clear communication strategy has been devised and shared with pupils and parents to ensure that everyone knows the procedures for Blended Learning should a pupil find themselves off school self-isolating. As with the Senior School, any pupil who is absent from School because of illness should spend time resting and recovering in the normal way, before accessing any blended learning.
Our School spirit shines through in all that we do here at Malvern St James. The pupils and staff alike have shown remarkable resilience and adaptability. Our Digital Learning Strategy is very advanced: it is enormously exciting for us to embrace and develop new skills and to make the most of the new opportunities that the IT presents. Without doubt, many of these new initiatives will be part of our digital future. Our teachers are incredibly creative and resourceful, and our commitment to Digital Literacy will ensure the best educational provision for our pupils well into the decade ahead.