Remote Teaching

Posted on: 15/05/2020

It seems timely to stop, draw breath and begin some serious reflection on what we have been able to achieve so far with our remote learning provision this half term. We have now received - overwhelmingly positive – feedback from parents, pupils and staff about this via the surveys we sent out earlier this week, and it is important that, amongst our day to day work, we take time to look back at what we have achieved and look forward to what more we can do.

So much has changed in recent months and as we reflect upon our children’s learning, a few things are most readily apparent. We are now living with the daily reality of technology enabled education and, at St. Helen’s College, we certainly now have in place a robust and really productive teaching/learning platform, with which all staff and pupils are familiar. I am sad that so many schools across the country do not, even now, have a satisfactory online offering in place for their children. It is heartening to hear that the independent sector is able to assist schools less fortunate in their provision and schools such as Eton are facilitating remote learning with their A level students holding tutorials for younger children in the maintained sector.

There has been a great effect on staff, too. With remote teaching, staff are being more self critical; individually and as a whole school, we are surveying parents and children much more frequently than ever before, taking feedback on board, tweaking our practice and so, hopefully, providing even more effective learning opportunities. Staff have enhanced their skills and proved themselves adaptable and resourceful; with this has come a renewal of energy and excitement about our vocation and about what we as individuals have been able to achieve. 

For most pupils at our school, there is more independent learning, more enquiry based learning and more project based learning. This has led to some wonderful creativity from your children and some really sophisticated and interesting work being produced. What we have also noticed is that, through remote learning, the children are developing ever-greater self-discipline. The timetable is looser, and there are fewer sanctions for children, who have come to realise that ‘virtue is its own reward’. They understand now, if they did not before, that the benefits of engaging fully, willingly and creatively in their learning are a sense of pride, achievement and happiness in themselves. Parents have played, and continue to play, a huge part in motivating the children to work from home successfully, often while facing the challenge of also working from home in shared spaces. We know that parents will have coped with many difficulties along the way and your support is very greatly appreciated.

I am tempted to say here that we could not have imagined all of this two months ago...however, it is precisely because, here at St. Helen’s College, we did imagine it - and worked quickly to build upon and enhance our existing systems, supporting each other and being willing to upskill ourselves - that it has become such a successful reality!

It is really astonishing to think back to what was asked of school leadership teams and teaching staff at the end of March. With virtually no notice, schools across the country were required to move our entire educational provision online for an unspecified length of time. Nationwide, a flurry began to research and select the best online programmes via which to deliver education, and teachers were required to re-plan almost entirely every lesson that they were due to deliver. We were very lucky that, as a school, we were already using Google Classroom and a flipped learning model in many year groups. This meant that many of our staff were already familiar with planning and delivering lessons using online platforms, and many of our pupils were already familiar with submitting work, communicating online and receiving feedback using these systems.

The last week of term is always a time of ‘finishing off’. While teaching continues, units of work are likely to be drawing to a close, art projects are being finished off and children are refining work, writing out work for Exhibition Day displays, and engaging in Easter-themed activities or creating Mother’s Day cards and gifts. In that final week, following the government’s announcement of school closure, these activities had to suddenly (over one weekend) be replaced with online activities, while teachers also struggled with worries over their own health, the health of their families, and childcare for their own children whose schools were suddenly closed. It was a tough time for staff across the school and I believe, honestly, that we muddled through it as best we could. 

During that final week of the spring term and as soon as term ended, our School Governors, the Senior Leadership Team and I began planning in earnest for the summer term. It is hard to remember now, but at that time we had no certainty at all over what the summer term would hold. We had to assume that we would be continuing with remote educational provision, but we had no idea for how long. We had to assume that there was a strong possibility of some of our staff falling ill or being required to self-isolate. We were worried for the health and economic stability of our pupils and their families. We were concerned about how to ensure the long-term viability of the school as an organisation.

Our priorities were threefold at that time: 

1. To make our first priority, always, the safety and wellbeing of our whole community: pupils, parents and staff.

2. To ensure that we could continue to provide an excellent education to our pupils, which would include both delivering high quality teaching and maintaining the strong and crucial pastoral relationships between pupils and staff.

3. To consider how best to support parents during the pandemic, by providing supervision for key worker children, by considering the economic, emotional and practical difficulties potentially faced by parents, and by communicating effectively with parents over the necessary changes and decisions faced by the school.

Teachers and senior leaders spent what should have been their Easter holidays re-planning lessons, mastering technologies that were new to them, creating videos in order to boost children’s spirits, and analysing, in depth, the school’s economic challenges. We knew that we needed to work out, quickly but with integrity, how to navigate through the uncertainty with fairness, generosity and good business sense in order to safeguard the school’s future for our pupils, parents and staff, and protect the enormous goodwill and mutual trust on which our community thrives. 

Many staff were furloughed; we took advantage of the available Government schemes to help organisations such as ours and we worked out fee adjustments for parents for the summer term in the fairest and most transparent way possible – all the while not knowing if or when a return to school might be allowed. Our teaching staff worked hard, many upskilling themselves and stepping out of their comfort zones, to prepare lessons, make videos, research and curate suitable resources for use online, and alter the curriculum provision and timetables as necessary. We ran training sessions for staff who needed extra support in order to use the online platforms; we developed our own systems for online registration; we considered carefully how pupils could submit work and how work could be assessed and feedback given. Staff recognised that they would need to step outside of their comfort zones, work collaboratively and adapt to new timetables and ways of working. They rose to the challenge with courage and grace, welcoming parents into their classrooms and assemblies as regular visitors.

As the summer term began, with a depleted staff body and continued uncertainty over the pandemic situation, teachers communicated daily with pupils, parents and each other to tweak their practice and ensure that children were engaged in the online learning. As well as preparing and delivering lessons, and being available online for large chunks of the day to assist children in their learning, they monitored pupil attendance and engagement and answered parent queries. All the while, throughout the Easter holidays and during term time, volunteers from amongst the school’s teaching and administrative staff have also come into school daily to care for the children of our key workers, supporting them in their learning, looking after their emotional and physical wellbeing, and ensuring that they could have lots of fun and develop positive relationships with those around them. The family spirit of St. Helen’s College has really shone through, here. Miss Walker’s daughter (Madeline), Mrs. Smith’s son (Charley) and my own daughter (Kiera) quickly volunteered to come onto staff and join the team providing exceptional care and attention for the key worker children and ensuring that they are well-supported in accessing their online learning.

I hope that you will agree that, over these last many weeks, the staff here have never lost sight of how hard a time this must be for parents and children. We share many of your challenges: like you, our workplace has changed beyond recognition; many of our colleagues have been furloughed and we have had to spread ourselves thin in order to get everything done; we miss your children and our colleagues greatly; we have our own children and elderly relatives at home who need us; we are concerned for our own health; like you, we are tired, and worried about what the future will hold. We do not underestimate how great these challenges are for parents, and we have tried to be mindful that our communications are clear and honest, that our systems are user-friendly and that the inevitable demands being placed upon parents should be as manageable as we can make them.

It has not been easy, for any of us. And yet, as I wrote recently, there is so much to be proud of and grateful for. We are particularly grateful for the overwhelmingly positive and supportive feedback that pupils and parents gave through the recent online learning surveys. Many of you took the time to send messages of thanks to teachers and the school for all that we have been doing – and this week, entirely independently, the children of 6RD also made a ‘thank you’ video for staff, collaborating virtually in order to do so. These words and gestures mean so much to us. We do our jobs because we believe passionately in the power of education and because we love your children; we do not do them for recognition, but we are human and to hear your appreciation cannot help but boost our spirits and make everything seem that little bit more worthwhile. So thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.

With the news that schools are being asked to begin a phased re-opening after half term, we are once again doing a lot of planning in order to put rigorous processes in place. As with the news of closure, three things remain our priority: to safeguard the wellbeing of our whole community, to continue to provide an excellent education and first class pastoral care for our pupils, and to maintain an open, honest, mutually supportive relationship with parents so that we may continue to work together for the good of all. Next week, I will share more details with parents of exactly what our phased school re-opening will involve and how we are preparing for it. In the meantime, you might be interested to read this TES article which details how a school in Denmark have found their re-opening, and how they, like us, have come to realise that there are benefits to remote learning as well as to traditional teaching.

Mrs. Drummond