When schools were closed to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers, nobody knew how long the lockdown would last, or how education and schooling could continue without the physical presence of young learners turning up to a communal building each day.
The challenge presented has been multi-faceted, and, as is the case with all the meatiest of challenges, has been subject to much armchair punditry from every Tom, Dick and Harry imaginable.
Schools, school leaders and teachers have had to find a way through all of this and respond to the challenge – all at extremely short notice and without any sort of blueprint.
The “home-learning offer” refers to the package of teacher-led input and resources that schools have been able to put together to help parents pick up the mantle of education with their children at home. Without a blueprint, and without any real notice period for schools to discuss and reach a consensus about how this might look nationally, home-learning offers have varied across individual schools. Here, I will argue for the strengths of that approach in that it has enabled the schools to respond to the communities they serve. Schools should, I would suggest, know themselves well and that includes an almost intimate knowledge of the dynamics, needs and circumstances of the pupils and parents they work with. A home-learning offer that works for one part of the population may not necessarily translate to another. There will be commonalities – making resources accessible online, establishing a need to maintain contact with pupils and families, the physical production of packs or resources and so on. But the delivery and the methodology will differ.
I need to make clear that I’m not including expectations in this analysis: teacher expectations of pupils, or parental expectations of the school. Expectations should be universally high in all circumstances. Nor am I addressing the obvious inequities that have been exposed through school closures such as availability of, and access to, tech, the internet and communication.
But the ability to tailor the response to the community a school is part of, is, in my opinion, a good thing.
A tailored response
For my schools this has meant devising a home-learning package that is optional at the point of use. We took the view that we needed to recognise that for many families, a period of school closure and lockdown could increase anxiety and tension in the household as parents were forced to juggle working from home with child care and home-schooling. We wanted to provide a package with flexibility – something useful for parents and pupils and something that wouldn’t add to the pressure in potentially difficult family-life dynamics.
We considered that if we became too prescriptive, too demanding, and if we got that balance wrong, we may end up disenfranchising families and turning children “off” from learning. We may have contributed to a scenario whereby it was actually easier for parents and carers to “manage” the situation through Netflix and iPads than it was to engage in an overbearing home-learning package.
There will be some reading this who disagree. Some schools will have taken the view that their pupils need the consistency of a more rigid timetable and clear expectations about how much they should engage with it. Remember, there is no blueprint and therefore no right answer. We took a view on what we felt would be best for our families based on our knowledge and understanding of our community. If that approach is different to yours, I do not criticise the decisions you have reached because you will have reached them based on your knowledge and understanding of your school community. That is a strength in all of this, not a weakness.
You can listen to me talking about my philosophy and the approach to home-learning that my schools have taken in my interview with Manx Radio here.
An online presence
Another question to be answered is how to provide for teacher-contact during the period of lockdown. Some schools have explored “live” lessons through platforms such as MSTeams and Zoom. Others have offered up pre-recorded lessons which pupils can watch again at their own pace. My schools have not taken this path… yet. The timescale has been – in our measured opinion – too short to safely assess the challenges of “beaming” live into the homes of our pupils and my workforce are not adequately trained in managing large video conference calls, even less so when you add in “teaching” alongside the “call management” aspect. So live lessons for the moment are off of our agenda. We coupled this decision with our philosophy that as an IQM Flagship School for inclusive practice we should aim to break down the barriers to learning at home – for us this was a belief that we should aim to make the majority of our learning activities “screen free.”
Have we got it right? That question is very difficult to answer. But one thing I feel very genuinely about is testing the strength of feeling and then responding to feedback. Telephone contact has been maintained by my teachers – we have reached every single family during the lockdown – and we have constantly sought to listen to parents’ feelings about our home-learning package and to make adjustments in light of what we are told.
Evolve the offer
Our parents told us that broadly they were happy with our offer. But there were some important points which we needed to respond to. Those parents who had been disappointed with our offer, though small in number, seemed to consistently centre that disappointment on the quantity of work offered to pupils. When we explored this further, it was clear that we had a comprehensive package – certainly comparable in terms of quantity to other schools in our region – but it was difficult to locate on our website. In the super short timeframe between being told we were closing and making our offer available, we hadn’t got the layout and navigation quite right on our website. We’ve since been able to address this.
We also received feedback that some parents didn’t want to engage in the “celebration of work” programme that we had championed through our social media presence. Taking examples of home-learning in photograph and video form had allowed teachers to give feedback and encouragement to show that they valued the efforts of their pupils. By displaying the work publicly on Facebook we had also found a way to keep the school community alive and connected. But some parents and pupils, quite rightly, wanted an additional channel where feedback could be more private, more personal and away from the public glare that occasionally brings with it a competitive edge. We’ve respected this and moved our teachers onto Google accounts with new email addresses that they can be reached on by pupils and parents. This email address is separate from their official work-based email account and is exclusively for access during lockdown. We’ve negotiated some expectations around how often these accounts should be checked and communicated with parents clear guidelines about how to use this access and how long they can anticipate waiting before a response. The Facebook offer remains – part of our evolution programme is to “add to” and “augment” rather “remove.”
We also listened to those parents who did want an online package. Whilst staying true to our philosophy of providing work that doesn’t require screen time, we’ve augmented it by endorsing the Oak National Academy platform, after taking time to explore the wide range of options out there. We’ve incorporated a link to the portal on our own website and, over time, our intention is for our teachers to begin directing parents and pupils to those aspects of Oak National which are most relevant and match the learning journeys we’ve already set our children on. This will start appearing in our own planning and will enable us to start thinking about how we can expand tech and online capabilities to those families who don’t necessarily have this type of access.
The point I am making is that our home-learning offer has evolved over time and will continue to evolve. It also has to be responsive to parent feedback, and we’ve started to demonstrate that in what we have provided.
Remember, there is no blueprint. There remains no blueprint. We’re building the blueprint as we go along.