Remote learning: How are we doing?


John Viner talks about his own experience of delivering remote learning through the schools he supports, as well as looking at government reports on the effectiveness of remote learning.


  • Remote learning is more challenging for younger age groups and those with SEND.
  • Having a device doesn’t guarantee access to remote learning as homes may have insufficient bandwidth to access the learning platform.
  • Pupils can lack focus when working at home as there are likely to be more distractions.
  • Teachers can have difficulty aligning the curriculum for remote learning.

Teaching remotely and in person at the same time poses a threat to teacher well-being. Back in January we had more or less got used to the idea that remote learning was here to stay when the Secretary of State decided, against advice, that schools should go back. So we did – and the Secretary of State, realising that this had been a massive error, shut them again the following day.

Now, after a nationwide return, this is essentially a retrospective. Nevertheless, in case we find ourselves here again, there are important strategies we may need. The ’Checklist – Remote learning audit’ can be tweaked as an audit tool to assess the remote learning our pupils have received and how we can build on it.

Prior to the Winter lockdown, we had mostly been providing a very mixed bag of home-learning opportunities. In my role as a teacher trainer, I worked with schools beginning to experiment with Zoom and Webex and I worked with some (independent) schools using Google Classroom to teach a full timetable. In my role as Chair of Governors of a 2FE primary, I was slightly uncomfortable with the fact that the best we could offer was some worksheets and lessons on our school website. I had also been providing ‘Grandad’s Virtual School’ on Zoom for my ten-year-old grandson and, at that point, his school was also providing slender, downloadable fare.

If your school has a similar history, don’t beat yourself up about it. This was wholly new territory and many schools were simply trying to navigate a channel they had never previously visited. Unsurprising, then, that Ofsted undertook a series of visits to schools during September, October and November 2020. Its brief was to get a handle on what was actually going on, both with provision for key workers’ children and with remote learning. The monthly reports (‘Remote education research’) are interesting reading, showing a rapidly changing picture.

In the September report, HMCI reported that:

‘Remote learning presents considerable challenges. Often these are characterised as problems of access to technology, to broadband or to peace, quiet and space in the home and these concerns were described on our visits. But there are other challenges too, including how to motivate a child to engage outside of the classroom’s structured regime. Parents’ experiences of remote learning will vary, but common to many has been a real struggle to get children to turn off the Xbox and pick up the textbook.’

Although the reports did not say so, the Education Secretary told us that Ofsted said that the best remote learning was live lessons and, in a sort of stick and carrot way, invited parents to report their schools to Ofsted if they were not happy with the remote learning offer. Deliciously, the result of this was that the regulator was swamped by messages praising schools and saying how much their work was appreciated!

Schools and school leaders have always been quick to address issues of concern and, by the time schools were back in business after their one-day return, remote learning across the nation had been transformed. In both my grandson’s school and in my local primary, we were delivering regular lessons via Microsoft Teams and all pupils had the opportunity for two daily live class lessons, while follow-up work was posted online.

Points to consider

However self-congratulatory we may feel about the successes of our remote learning offer, we should not lose sight of Ofsted’s warning, published in January 2021, of six particular problems its research had identified. These were that:

 1 Teachers had difficulty aligning the curriculum for remote learning

This may be old news, as it is based on an Autumn term YouGov survey. A significant proportion of teachers found it very difficult to match lesson content with remote learning. However, certainly in my experience, confidence is growing with expertise.

2 Remote learning is more challenging for younger age groups

No surprises here. Young children need social interaction and find it hard to engage with online learning. This remains a real challenge. Schools I know have linked up remote lessons with downloadable resources and with telephone calls home. This appears to be meeting with some success for the children who can work this way.

3 Pupils can lack focus when working at home

Ask any parent. They may be working from home, supervising home learning, childminding and dealing with all the questions that arise. Hardly surprising then that pupils lack focus, especially if there are easily accessible distractions.

4 Having a device doesn’t guarantee access to remote learning

This remains a big issue. Many homes do not have the necessary broadband bandwidth, especially if there is more than one child and maybe a parent all wanting internet access. The answer may be to source and fund 4G dongles, as some schools have done. We offer support from our IT technician but, if a parent’s only broadband access is via a mobile phone, it does not resolve the issue.

We have found that one solution has been to identify lessons provided by BBC Bitesize on television. It remains a lot of work by teachers to identify which resources to use, but it does get over the wifi problem. Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, has asked the Culture Secretary if Oak Academy lessons can be delivered by a public broadcaster, but this remains an idea only.

5 Teaching remotely and in person at the same time poses a threat to teacher well-being

Unsurprisingly, evidence suggests that teachers trying to balance live online teaching while also having a role in school, for example working with vulnerable pupils, become increasingly stressed. One of my sons teaches in an alternative provision for EBD students but is also expected to livestream to those learning online. School leaders need to recognise this and perhaps take the advice of the National Education Union in respect of well-being (see ‘Coronavirus: remote learning’ in the Further information section below).

6 Remote learning has a bigger negative impact on pupils with SEND

So far this has appeared to be the case. However, in our school, we are doing our best to differentiate lessons as well as expectations, so that pupils with SEND are able to learn at a slower pace. Again, as time passes, we will get better at it.

Moving forward

It may be too easy to focus on the problems and ignore the wonderful work that schools have developed as part of their remote learning offer. Let us not forget that the government continues to fund Oak National Academy and it may be that, as we seek to provide a blend of effective remote learning experiences, we can incorporate some of its lessons with our own. Oak offers a full timetable of lessons, across a wide range of subjects, from Early Years to Key Stage 4.

Since the Education Secretary decided that all schools should return at once, we must learn from our increased confidence, capacity and capability so that, if we end up even partly teaching remotely again in the future, our pupils do not become the lost generation feared by some.

Further information


Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

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About Author

John Viner

John Viner has taught in both primary and secondary schools, with a long history of successful primary school leadership. He is now a full-time writer, inspector and adviser.

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