For now, remote education is suspended for the majority. However, there
are still lessons to be learnt from the experiences of the past few months and we now have a blueprint for other times when attendance in school might not be possible. Emma Meadus takes us through her school’s approach and reflects on how this might be applied in the future.
- Phone calls, emails and garden visits were used to reach out to persistent non-engaged learners and their families.
- Holding a ‘Flip-the-Focus’ week was designed to give everyone a boost.
- The school now has an improved bank of resources to support those who cannot attend classes due to medical conditions or other circumstances.
School closure presented many tests for all of us working in schools. Attendance in online lessons and engagement in offline work was a new challenge for school leaders to manage. Government regulations for school attendance were suspended during the coronavirus outbreak, meaning that there were no legal comebacks school leaders could use to insist on pupils engaging in online learning. This left school leaders relying on their understanding of their school context to judge uniquely every case of poor engagement.
Instead of falling on attendance policies and the law for a course of action, we had to devise a new approach, bespoke to the needs of the learner in the exceptional circumstances. Instead, school staff used their people skills, ranging from persuasion and encouragement to cajoling, rewarding or even a good talking to, if that’s what it took to re-engage learners and their parents in remote education.
The question had to be considered too about whether we should, as ethical leaders, chase some pupils and families who were not engaging in learning. Were things not hard enough for some families during the pandemic without headteachers breathing down their necks? On the other hand, all children have a right to education and the improved life chances this can bring. The answer, I decided, lay in neither extreme, but in working on a case-by-case basis powered by knowledge of pupils and their families.
Monitoring engagement in learning
To help us trace which families needed support, we set up some systems to track attendance and engagement in remote learning. Using Microsoft Teams for daily live lessons gave us the facility to use the participants list as a register. We quickly learned to insist on cameras being on so that pupils could not log on and then wander off!
Cold-call questioning from teachers helped ensure pupils were not distracted on their phones during live lessons. Teachers kept records of any pupils not turning up to lessons or submitting their offline work which were then passed on to the administration team for an initial call home. In many cases, we removed technology barriers by loaning out school laptops, even driving them to the house if they weren’t picked up from school.
Our in-house pupil well-being worker took on communication with the more persistent non-engaged learners and families before escalating to me. This involved a rigorous routine of phone calls, emails and garden visits. In most cases, parents were struggling to get their children to do their home learning. Root causes were lack of routines – disrupted sleep, poor eating schedules and chaotic home lives that were not conducive to learning.
In a few cases, parents did not have the capacity to support their children themselves. Support from our well-being worker with parenting strategies and a flyer with hints and tips for engaging in home learning worked in most cases, but, in some more complex situations, it resulted in me inviting the children into school with the discretion afforded to headteachers for vulnerable learners.
Responding to disengagement and mental health concerns
As school closure wore on, the demand for in-school places increased, due to children struggling to stay engaged with their remote learning. Although thoroughly understandable, it was not logistically possible or in the spirit of the lockdown to invite more and more children back into school. Again, taking this on a case-by-case basis, we offered a few things.
The first was a ‘Flip-the-Focus’ week for all learners to give everyone a boost. Online live lessons took an arts and science focus rather than English and maths, plus offline learning was practical or paper-based. At the end of the week, I booked an online live magic show as a treat to say thank you for working so hard at home.
The week coincided with Children’s Mental Health week, so we set a series of well-being challenges to complete, such as taking a nature walk or calling up a friend for a chat. This off-timetable week re-engaged lots of learners and their families, giving them the energy to push through a few more weeks of home learning.
Some children, however, did need more bespoke support with their mental health. Social isolation was taking a serious toll on some children. Parents told me about radically-altered behaviours and personalities as they struggled being alone and separated from friends. We invited these children into school and even if we could only accommodate a few sessions a week, it was the tonic they needed to re-engage with the world, their friendships and as a result, their learning.
“ The next step was to invest some time in consolidating some of the key concepts covered in the remote education period, to ensure we were building on strong foundations ”
Returning to school
As we looked forward to returning to in-school learning in mid-March, we planned our approach for full-school opening. We knew we had pupils coming back with various starting points for learning in school. How would we accommodate this while considering the pressure to push on with the curriculum, catch up and leave no learner behind? As a staff we decided on a three-phased approach.
To start the process, we focused on mapping out the terrain both academically and socially/emotionally. This meant using low-stakes quizzes, surveys, simple tests and questioning to get a baseline on where all learners were in their learning and well-being. This provided the information needed to know where to focus our efforts and which children needed additional support with learning, friendships or their mental health.
The next step was to invest some time in consolidating some of the key concepts covered in the remote education period, to ensure we were building on strong foundations. Then, we moved forward confidently and at pace with new learning.
Take aways from remote education
Although I don’t think many teachers would be rushing to go back to online learning, having to provide remote education has provided some benefits to what schools can now offer; for example, for pupils with medical conditions who need to spend long periods away from school. We now know how to use technology to allow such pupils to dial into class-based live lessons with the obvious benefits this brings for social interaction and instant teaching feedback.
We also know what to expect in terms of online learning fatigue and when to expect it to hit. Our flyer of hints and tips for keeping focused and our three-phased approach to moving back to school-based learning will be useful for supporting any learners who need to work from home for a sustained period in the future.
On the downside, snow days are now technically a thing of the past, much to the children’s distress. However, I’ve decided my policy will be the first snow day of the season can be a well-being day for all the school community but any after that will find us back in the virtual classroom.
Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice: