Remote education: Schools still working to find best approaches

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools are still working out the best approaches for remote education, including the appropriate use of “live teaching” and how to align the in-school curriculum with learning from home. Pete Henshaw reports on Ofsted's latest Covid-19 inspection report

Ofsted’s latest report into how schools are coping with the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the extent of the challenges facing teachers and senior leaders when planning curriculum coverage for pupils who are self-isolating or awaiting test results.

The report finds that some schools consider live lessons difficult to deliver because of safeguarding concerns, while others believe they help teachers to spot safeguarding issues at home.

Schools also told inspectors that it was more challenging to deliver remote education for just a few children, as opposed to catering for entire bubbles.

The reports are based on visits to 266 primary schools, 87 secondary schools and 27 other settings including pupil referral units and special schools between September 29 and October 23.

It comes as the latest attendance figures – published by the Department for Education on Tuesday, November 10 – show that 89.3 per cent of state school pupils were in attendance on November 5 (92 per cent in primary schools and 87 per cent in secondary schools).

Furthermore, 16 per cent of state schools said they had one or more pupils self-isolating (38 per cent of secondary schools and 11 per cent of primaries). Up to nine per cent of schools had 30 or more pupils self-isolating.

Ofsted reports a similar picture, stating that more than 25 per cent of schools had sent entire “bubbles” home. It adds: “This had happened more frequently in secondary schools than in primary schools. Most commonly, this involved between 15 and 80 pupils. However, in a few cases, large numbers of pupils were involved – over 100 in primary, and occasionally over 400 in secondaries.”

The report also highlights that half of the schools visited have seen an increase in parents electing to home-educate their pupils because of fears around the virus, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

And in a week when school leaders have launched a petition calling on the government to reimburse schools for the increasing costs associated with Covid-19 safety measures, Ofsted also acknowledges the "significant" impact the crisis is having on school budgets.

Remote education delivery

Most schools, inspectors found, are using a mixture of paper-based work, text books, live or recorded lessons and other digital platforms or resources.

On live lessons, the report states: “Some schools reported that they were not using live lessons because of their concerns about safeguarding, and do not intend to do so. In contrast, a few schools considered live video lessons important for children’s emotional and social health, and said these allowed teachers to spot potential safeguarding issues at home.”

Schools reported that remote education was easier to deliver to entire social bubbles using live or recorded video lessons and leaders recognised the importance of “live contact” for pupils: “One secondary school subject leader, for example, commented that when their year 10 bubble was self-isolating, ‘the whole corridor was doing live lessons’. Some leaders noted that during the first national lockdown, pupils reacted very positively when there was live contact from teachers, so want to build on that when needed.”

However, challenges come when individual pupils are sent home, as delivering recorded or live lessons for a few pupils and then also teaching those lessons in school was “an unrealistic expectation for staff”, the report warns.

It adds: “Leaders in a few schools explained how they were trying to mitigate the additional demands on staff of providing remote learning, for example through the help of teaching assistants, or having staff who took a particular role in leading or modelling remote education. Some leaders talked about learning platforms that ‘assessed pupils’ work automatically’, which they felt was helpful in reducing workload.”

Curriculum alignment

Schools are also still “in the process” of working out how to best align in-school and remote teaching. Rather than trying to ensure that all subjects are delivered remotely, schools are opting for those subjects best suited to their modes of remote delivery. For example, some schools are not covering practical elements of certain subjects at all; others are heavily adapting curricula in subjects such as PE, art, design and technology, and science.

Assessment and feedback is an on-going challenge, too, with some schools using bespoke commercial programmes, others allowing pupils to submit questions during live teaching, others asking pupils to upload photos of work.

When it comes to the in-school curriculum, most secondary schools were teaching all their usual subjects, and while many of the primary schools were teaching all subjects, “some were not”.

The report adds: “Even when teaching all subjects, most schools were making at least some adaptations to the order and content of the curriculum in response to gaps in pupils’ learning and to Covid-19 restrictions.

“Nearly all primary school leaders said that they were prioritising reading and mathematics, with very few schools focusing on science. Some also talked about needing to work on pupils’ writing, including their ‘stamina’ when writing at length. They felt that pupils had lost this ability during the first national lockdown, when they had not had the chance to practise their writing style and posture.

“Pupils in key stages 4 and 5 were generally continuing with their planned courses of study towards national examinations. A few leaders mentioned that they may need to consider whether some pupils should drop a subject at some point in the future, in exceptional circumstances.”

Many schools said they had restricted full provision of practical activity for pupils in key stage 3 in subjects like science, design and technology, music and computing, often because specialist teaching areas were not accessible to all bubbles and key stages 4 and 5 had priority.

The report adds: “Leaders of all schools reported that they were either in the process of carrying out assessments of pupils or had completed them. Through their assessment process, they were aiming to understand any learning losses caused by the closure of schools to most pupils and to find pupils’ new starting points. Many leaders said that they were still in the process of building a detailed understanding of learning losses.”

Staff wellbeing warning

The report carries a warning about the continuing impact on “tired or exhausted” staff who were having to “teach as normal but also plan teaching and learning in different ways, particularly when remote and face-to-face education happen in parallel”. Teaching staff are also having to “meticulously apply new safety procedures to prevent Covid-19 from spreading, support pupils who are not in school, (and) cover for members of staff who are self-isolating”.

The report adds: “Many leaders commented that they monitor and review their staff’s workload regularly. To compensate for staff’s increased responsibilities, some leaders have made several changes to the usual ways of working. These include changes to lesson-planning, marking, meetings and after-school clubs.”

The catch-up premium

Schools still do not have any “definite plans” for how they intend to use the £650m “catch-up premium”. Inspectors found that where plans had been made, these tended to focus on the needs of individual pupils. Potential strategies included online tutoring, extending the school day for year 11, releasing teachers to plan remote learning, additional pastoral staff, education welfare officers, and counselling for pupils.

A chief inspector writes

In her commentary, published alongside the latest report, chief inspector Amanda Spielman said that aligning the classroom curriculum with work done remotely was one of a number of “workload pressures” on teachers and schools.

She adds: “It remains the case that the home learning experience is patchy and, in many cases, not aligned effectively with the classroom curriculum.”

Other pressures facing schools, she says, include managing staff absence and self-isolation, and the leadership burden on school leaders. The report highlights the “significant” impact of Covid-19 safety measures and other related costs on school budgets. It comes as school leaders this week launched a petition calling for government action to reimburse the costs of Covid safety measures in schools.

Ms Spielman writes: “Budgets, as ever, are clearly on the minds of leaders across education and social care. Covering for staff absences and maintaining enhanced cleaning regimes are budgetary pressures most affecting schools.”

Ofsted’s autumn term visits are to continue remotely during the current national lockdown and the next report is due in December.


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