What should remote education look like in your school?

Written by: Tom Middlehurst | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What is remote learning? What isn’t it? And how are schools approaching it? Tom Middlehurst takes a practical look at what school leaders and teachers can and should be doing to fulfil their legal and moral obligations this term and beyond

Since mid-October it has been a statutory duty to provide immediate remote learning for any students who are unable to attend school due to the pandemic (DfE, 2020). Schools were already doing this during the first national lockdown, and continued to do so from the start of term, but the legal “direction” means that schools are now legally obliged to do this, and this has raised the expectations of some parents and students.

There remains a lot of confusion about what exactly is expected, as well as uncertainty about how effective remote learning can be. So what should school leaders and teachers be doing, as we continue to tackle this pandemic?

Start with the curriculum

As with classroom teaching, the starting point must be what we want young people to know, before we can discuss how we want to teach them that. The grassroots interest in curriculum, bolstered by Ofsted’s emphasis on the quality of education, has resulted in fruitful conversations across the country about what we want students to know and be able to do, when they should learn it by, and the sequencing of content that will best aid progression.

We must not throw the curriculum thinking out with the bathwater. All that work is more important now, in a period of varying remote learning, than ever.

Teachers and curriculum leaders should build on this work when planning and implementing remote learning. Be explicit about the components and composites of your remote curriculum and then consider the best way for these to be taught. Some composites may require direct instruction from a live or pre-recorded video, while others might be best achieved through an independent task. But let the curriculum guide the choice of remote pedagogy, not the other way around.

Think through your plans for immediate provision

The Department for Education (DfE) has confirmed that “immediate” remote learning means from the first full day a student cannot attend school because of Covid. Therefore, you could find yourself in a position of having to have a full day’s work ready in a matter of hours.

Although the expectation is that your remote curriculum will be as close as possible to the normal school curriculum, in reality this might not be the situation right away. Consider having an immediate remote learning kit (either physically or virtually). This could help supplement the normal curriculum or reinforce and embed knowledge previously taught. For example, an immediate remote learning plan for English might include reading and analysing myths, legends and Bible stories, or analysing unseen poems. Maths plans might focus on retrieval and mastery of previous topics.

You may want to take a three-staged approach to planning: what can you offer immediately; what can you offer when some students are in school and some are at home; and what will you offer if a whole class or year group is isolating?

Whatever your approach, be sure you have a plan to activate your full remote curriculum as soon as possible, and be clear as students leave what the expectation is.

Manage parents’ expectations

As more students are having to stay home as a result of rising infection rates, we know that managing parental expectations has been a challenge in some settings. Before you need to activate remote learning, be clear what your policy is and what the expectation should be.

Some parents may feel there is too much work; others not enough. The government’s expectation is that remote learning is of a similar length and weight to your normal school curriculum, as much as possible. This may mean more work than was previously set during the first lockdown, but is unlikely to fill a full five-hour day, as timetabled lesson time often includes movement and administrative tasks.

Be clear with parents and students how much work they should expect each day, and how long it should take to complete it.

It is also important to note that the legal direction only applies to Reception to year 11 students who have been told not to attend school due to Covid-19. If public health officials deem it safe for students to be in school, then they should be. Parents who choose not to send their children in, contrary to public health advice, do not have a right to request remote learning instead. Likewise, students who are absent for non-Covid reasons, including other sickness, do not have a legal entitlement to immediate remote learning. Of course, schools can offer their remote learning to these students, but it is at their discretion.

Remote learning does not mean live virtual teaching

A common misconception, not helped by the mainstream press, is that remote learning is synonymous with virtual teaching, live-streaming lessons, and online meetings. It isn’t.

The DfE expects schools to provide both online and offline tasks for students, wherever possible. It also expects pupils to have daily contact with their teachers. All of this can be achieved through asynchronous online tools, where students and teachers can have a conversation, although not necessarily in real time.

Some schools are either live-streaming lessons from the classroom, or hosting live lessons when a whole class is absent. Others are using a mix of pre-recorded explanations, online and offline tasks, and asynchronous chat functions. Both approaches are encouraged, and fulfil the legal obligation of the direction – but schools should think through the implications of both.

Factors to consider if offering live online teaching

If schools choose to either stream lessons from the classroom or host online classes, there are a range of issues that should be considered. Foremost is safeguarding: schools should update and review their policies on keeping children safe online to reflect the change in pedagogy. If live-streaming lessons, schools should also ensure that other students in the classroom are protected and safe.

There is a concern that live-streaming lessons invites parents to observe, and possibly comment on the teaching. If you choose to live-stream lessons, have a clear protocol for parents to follow if they do not agree with a teacher’s approach. School leaders must protect the wellbeing and workload of their teaching staff during this difficult time.

If you are hosting live lessons, make sure to establish behaviour routines and practices, as you would in a classroom. Allow students to “play” with the platform before you try to teach a lesson. Be clear about how to use mute buttons and hands-up facilities, and whether you want cameras on or off. As with all good behaviour policies, try to adopt a common approach to online behaviour across the school.

Use of resources

There are a number of free and commercial tools to aid remote learning, including full lessons with pre-recorded explanations and tasks set. Do not feel you have to reinvent the wheel: look at the resources available and map these against your curriculum expectations. Be realistic – even if an online video does not explain a concept in exactly the way you would, is it still fit-for-purpose? If so, use it. Times are challenging enough without every teacher having to prerecord their own lessons.

Know when to step away

We know that teachers and leaders are doing everything they can to support their students’ learning, but there is only so much you can do as a school – know when it is right to step away. Teachers cannot be expected to answer questions in the evening; not every remote lesson will mirror the quality of in-class teaching; and there is only so much that can be done remotely.

It is in many teachers’ nature to go above and beyond for their students. During a time of lockdown, we must prioritise teachers’ wellbeing and mental health and this extends to how we think about remote learning. There is no point in investing in high-speed routers and super-fast dongles if the teacher on the other side is burnt to a frazzle.

  • Tom Middlehurst is curriculum and inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/3kgWaQm

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