Like you all, the last 10 days have been a race to re-establish remote learning following what could only be described as a ‘less than ideal’ 48 hours of communications from our glorious leaders at the start of term.
Like you all, we’ve looked to learn lessons from our first remote learning approach, which was cobbled together during the heady days of the first lockdown, and then refined as the months wore on… and on… and on.
This year, as part of our ‘From Mitigation to Success’ strategy, led by the fabulous Marc Roland, we had been reviewing the emerging research into the impact of learning during the first lockdown on disadvantaged children nationally. We intended to use this research to inform our Catch-up approach – never thinking we’d be here again.
However, with a new national lockdown closure now upon us, we are using this research, and the lessons we learnt, to inform our new approach. I have no doubt that you will already have thought of all of these, but here are my reflections.
1. Write your plan to suit your vulnerable families.
Marc’s first observation from research to us was that, all too often, plans and provision is based around the wants and resources of the ‘haves’ … not the ‘have nots’.
Like others, I think we were sometimes guilty of planning our first lockdown home learning plan so that it would suit those with access to technology, time and confidence to teach.
This time we have changed the focus and asked: ‘how can we make sure that all our home learning can be confidently accessed by our most vulnerable, and least confident, families?’.
It is a subtle shift that has radically changed out approach.
2. Build the approach around the barriers.
Last lockdown, as a result of the nature and speed of the crisis, barriers weren’t identified until the approach had been developed, resulting in some children being left behind. The research showed the main barriers to children successfully learning at home were reasonably predictable:
- Lack of adults available to talk to the child about their work, tutor them when stuck, and to encourage them.
- Lack of prior experiences of the world (which is partly mitigated in normal times by the wider curriculum).
- Lack of a space to work.
- Lack of technology to access online resources, or more often, having to share a device with siblings or a parent.
- No printer with which to print out activity sheets.
- A feeling of isolation which resulted in children giving up.
So this time we built our home learning with these barriers in the front of our minds.
3. Every child must have a device – and we can’t wait for the government to provide it.
We received a grand total of three laptops from the DfE, which didn’t come close to the number of children which were having to share devices or work from one parent’s phone.
In the first lockdown this immediately put huge stress on the family and left some children at a severe disadvantage.
So last week we asked our community for help and set them the challenge of helping us ensure that every single child had a tablet or laptop – which was solely for their use throughout the school day.
With money we had in the school fund (from odd donations from school photos etc during the year, and from parents donating money towards our COVID effort earlier in the year) we were able to buy 12 Tablets to donate to families. The parents have donated over £1000 more in the past week alone to buy another 10, whilst four parents went out and bought tablets to donate to school themselves. We asked for old working tablets for parents who had several children and not quite enough devices for one each – providing another 12 tablets. The government finally joined the party with another 11 laptops.
By the end of the third week of term we will have donated or loaned nearly 50 devices – enough to make sure every child can access online learning all day, every day.
Look to yourselves and your community – the cavalry aren’t coming.
4. Children need to start each day by talking to the teacher.
Like a lot of you, we’ve discovered that one of the most powerful tools in engaging all the children in home learning is the sense that they are engaging in a communal activity alongside their peers. And now that every child has their own device, we can make sure this is available to every child – every day.
So at the start of every day, for 15 minutes, the teacher has a video call with all the children. They take a register, read a story, explain the day’s learning and reconnect.
It has been the single most powerful and popular thing we have done. It takes the emphasis and focus off the parent and back onto the teacher. The child has a reason to get up. The parent has strength at their elbow.
5. Video modelling doesn’t need to be live.
We toyed with the idea of running all our lessons live over video calls, but decided against it.
This was partly a practical consideration (with the vulnerable family – with limited data and multiple learners – in mind), but also as a result of me trying to help my Y11 revise algebra over Christmas!
Having not been allowed to do the higher maths paper when I was as school, I was quickly out of my depth helping my son. However, the ability to find short tutorial videos online which modelled the maths step-by-step was a god send. And the thing I noticed is that I never understood it first time, but instead had to keep replaying the video until I worked out what to do.
This got me thinking. Why do we assume that one modelled input is enough when we know that it is usually only enough for those who are already confident with the content being taught?
We felt that carefully modelled inputs which could be played again and again was better than a live zoom lesson where some would leave still in the dark, with no teacher to unstick them.
6. There is nothing wrong with pen and paper.
The temptation with remote learning is to assume that all must be digital and fed into a learning platform.
Many schools have done this very successfully, but all the research into remote learning showed that the quality of the learning was more important than the digital method used to facilitate it.
So all our activities are on paper. We have bought maths text books for all the children (Power Maths – cheap and good) and provided white boards, pens and exercise books.
For us, this keeps the methodology familiar and simple. Parents don’t need to wrestle with a learning platform and the child just needs a pen and paper to learn and succeed.
7. Live, teacher-led feedback is critical.
With no learning platform with which parents can upload work (again, vulnerable families in mind), every child takes part in two feedback sessions during the day.
The first is a short, whole-class check-in just before lunch. Here, the teacher runs through the basic answers and checks who has completed what. Again, this is a motivator – they need to complete the English and Maths work by lunchtime because the teacher will be checking.
The second, longer session, takes the form of a guided group in the afternoon where the teacher works with every child in a small group to to address misconceptions and assess understanding.
This closes the feedback loop and builds dialogue and a sense of togetherness in learning.
8. Reading is too important not to hear it daily.
Another key take-away that we picked up from our research into home learning with Marc was the direct correlation between outcomes of remote learning and reading ability.
We don’t quite yet know why this was so important (although we know the impact of reading on learning more widely), but it is something that we under-estimated during the first lockdown in terms of monitoring progress.
So this time, we hear the bottom 20% of readers (to borrow OFSTED’s terminology) read every day.
This is done with a teacher or teaching assistant, one to one, via video call or (where access is limited) down the phone.
Our most vulnerable readers can’t be left behind.
9. Home learning isn’t optional.
Whilst we were reasonably strict last time, we weren’t insistent about home learning being completed.
This time the message is a little different.
We have told parents that we know sometimes life will conspire against home learning: things won’t work, children will tantrum, the shopping will need doing.
However, we have said that the message to the children must always be that home learning is an expectation – not a choice.
The structure of the day – with the teacher taking control of the rhythms of learning – has helped greatly with this. The teacher is playing the lead, the parent is there to support. The child is there to do.
10. We kept more vulnerable children in school.
We know that this second lockdown is far harder on families than the first – hard as it was. We also know which families struggled most during the first lockdown.
Choosing who can stay in school this time round has been very difficult – not least as a result of the confused and conflicting messages from the DfE.
So this time we ranked the Essential Worker roles and Vulnerable children categories before offering places. We could not let everyone who qualified in – the school would be three quarters full if we did.
But, again (Marc’s words about prioritising those who need it most still ringing in our ears) we made space for many, many more vulnerable children and then actively sold the benefits of these places to these families.
We also asked each teachers to name a child who may not fit a DfE definition of vulnerability, but who did not cope during the last lockdown. These children were also offered places in school. Indeed, the most vulnerable were given a place in a special, small, nurture class, led by our highly-skilled Nurture teacher; a place to weather the storm, sheltered by bespoke emotional support.
Whilst there is nothing clever or profound in our reflections, we do feel clearer as to our rationale for home learning this time around.
We didn’t want to have to come up with a new home learning plan – we (like you) thought we were done with that.
However, I (like you) could not be prouder of how my staff have risen to the challenge with rigour, reflection and energy. This is even more remarkable given the bewilderment and fatigue we all felt when the second closure was announced.
I have no doubt that your school will have innovative ideas about home learning which we have not considered.
And we must remember, when this is all over, what lessons we have all learnt which we can apply to schooling for years to come.
Blackhorse Primary’s Remote Learning Plan can be found here.