Since the lockdown and school closure in the last week of March, all secondary schools have been making some sort of provision for their students. The standard of education being provided varies very widely. Some schools are using online technology, such as Zoom, Skype, Microsoft One Note, Google Classroom and so on, to provide live video teaching, set assignments and check the work they set and provide meaningful feedback. For other schools, they set assignment for their students and perhaps mark the work, and they call that teaching.

There have been many reports and statistics released on the impact of lockdown on school children and the provision being made by schools to ensure the continuity of education. There is one particular set of statistics that astonished me most and it says

“Two thirds of children have not taken part in online lessons during lockdown, study finds” – Sutton Trust.

It beggars belief as to why   only a third of young people are receiving online teaching in this country. What also puzzles me immensely is the fact that some schools are calling setting work for their students and marking it online teaching. I rate very highly the notion of setting an appropriate level of assignment for students, and, importantly, marking the work and providing meaningful feedback. However, this is in addition to actually teaching the students beforehand. Given the fact that we live in a part of the world in which advanced technology is available, there is no excuse at all why all schools should not be providing proper teaching with a video.

A little story – how easy it is to deliver a high-quality education online.

I’ll tell you a little story of my experience in the last two months. At Excel in Key Subjects, we provide online courses for GCSE and A-level students. The months of March and April are usually the busiest time of the year for us, as the summer examinations are approaching. Our courses are aimed at students who want to push up their grades from say C or B to an A or A* (from Grade 4, 5 and 6 to 7, 8 and 9 at GCSE)

I was absolutely devastated when, by 18th March, it became very apparent that we had to close the Saturday schools on 21st March, and also to cancel the intensive revision courses that were scheduled for the Easter holidays. For students who are in Y11 and the A-level students, who are due to go to university, the exams are cancelled anyway, so they do not need any revision, although the cancellation nevertheless still has the potential to do great harm, which I discussed in my last blogpost and you can read more about by following the link at the bottom of this page. For the younger students, the disruption to their education must not last too long, otherwise there will be future ramifications.

I have always held the opinion that online teaching was something that I strongly disagreed with. This is because it has to do with a computer and the potential for distraction for young people trying to learn online is vast. Also, there is something profoundly special about the face-to-face relationship between the teacher and the student.

Within three to four days of the closure of schools, I was beginning to overcome the shock and the reservation I had with online teaching. I called on my most senior teacher  – Graham McManus and we organised a Skype meeting with the other teachers, and started making plans and training ourselves. By 28th March, we had started teaching students via Zoom and Skype – meaning that we only had to close for one Saturday. There are two questions you may want to ask:

a. “Were the online lessons an instant success?” My answer is no, but yes. No, in the sense that we had issues with technology and some of the students could not connect and we had to spend time focusing the visualiser/camera and adjusting the sounds and so on.

Yes, because the students are learning, and, from the response to the survey we carried out and my conversations with parents, the online lessons were effective

b.     Was it very easy to set up online teaching?

I’ve got the same answer as before: No, but yes

No, because we had to sort out a few technical problems and some of the teachers were not so comfortable with online teaching technology! Also, it is hard work for the teachers as, in addition to the small group teaching, we are also providing one-to-one tutorials for each student and it can be exhausting.

Yes, because big technology companies like Google, Microsoft, Zoom and others are giving away much of their platforms free to schools or at a very low cost. Another added point is that lessons are recorded so students can access them and learn from them in the future.

We’ve now run the online teaching sessions for eight weeks and the quality is high and we keep improving all the time, as we familiarise ourselves with technology; changing what isn’t working and reinforcing what works.

Should schools be forced to reopen quickly?

I do not think it is wise at all to force all schools to reopen earlier than they should or for parents to be forced to send their children to school in cases where the parent(s) considers it unsafe to do so. At least, not without making appropriate provision for the safety of children and staff. However, with sufficient level of ambition on the part of the government, it is feasible to demand that all schools provide a sound quality of education for every student in the country, and this can be done within a relatively short period.

What I am speaking about here  is to have some sort of hybrid system, whereby some go to school and those who do not learn at home via some sort of video link. It will probably be quite a challenge to set it up and it won’t be running very smoothly to start with. However, it can be done and the earlier schools start experimenting the better. My suggestion is that they should adopt the “ready, aim  and fire” approach. They should start experimenting and not wait until a mega plan is in place, as, no matter how much they plan, there will be issues and they will have to adjust as they go along. It will be irresponsible for the teachers to refuse  to double up their efforts in either opening up schools or making online provision. Equally, it is unrealistic for the government to force teachers to open up schools hurriedly, without providing good guidance and support.

The fact that there is a small number of students who do not have access to a computer should not be an excuse, as the vast majority do. I must say, however, that, there is no reason why the government should not be able to provide a free laptop or give grants to poorer families to purchase one. One thing this shows me  is how little society values education. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of those people who claim not to be able to afford a computer have  very large televisions! Many of these large TVs can access YouTube, and lessons can be broadcast/streamed live. Faces of students do not have to show and it is a small price to pay to ask a teacher to show their faces, if they have to. I am not saying that everyone will be satisfied; however, I think well over 90% of secondary school students will be able to gain access. This is more than the one third who are able to get online lessons at present.  Another thing that could be done is to open up libraries and other public buildings for those who claim they cannot access the internet.

GCSE and A-level Exams cancellation ….

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