"We all know of the summer holiday dip we face when students return in September; teachers often wring their hands in despair at the loss of learning that has happened over 6 weeks. But what of 6 months?"
Headteachers and senior leadership teams across the country have worked endless hours over the last few weeks to make sense of a world that appeared to turn upside down overnight. One minute we were celebrating World Book Day and the next, staff sickness, anxiety, partial closure, full closure, crying students, more staff anxiety, more sickness, staff rotas, key worker lists, vulnerable lists, calling home, worried parents, supporting staff at home, setting up remote learning, Easter break except it wasn't - the list could go on. Among the myriad of worries Headteachers face is the impact this absence in learning will have on all students and especially the already disadvantaged. We all know of the summer holiday dip we face when students return in September; teachers often wring their hands in despair at the loss of learning that has happened over 6 weeks. But what of 6 months?
With the compounding challenges that lockdown may have on practicalities as well as on mental health, it certainly isn’t ‘business as usual’ in this ‘new normal’ we now face. However, one thing we know about young people going through change and turbulence, is that a level of consistency is reassuring and important to maintain. And as a school with exceptionally high standards for learning, we have seen how it brings about the best from our students. So to lessen our expectation for learning in a time that is so turbulent, would be to make it our ‘new normal’ and this would be massively letting our students down. Our teachers are not setting work for the sake of keeping them busy. We are still following our curriculum albeit adjusted to fit the new realities of home learning. The CST expectations for learning remains high, our students and parents are grateful for it and our staff are reassured by it.
Professor Daniel Muijs and Dr Dominique Sluijsmans published an article titled: ‘Why this is not the time for large-scale educational experiments’, which makes the case that evidence-based instructional principles are just as valid online as in the classroom. They make 5 key points which I believe our Trust is starting to get right - although this is not yet perfect:
1. ‘It is important not to overload pupils with busy work, but to help them develop two fundamental habits instead: attending limited but scheduled online lessons (health permitting) and completing specified independent tasks weekly.’
2. ‘When organising sessions, keep them at fixed times, and not too frequent. Appropriate lessons for online learning are concise (15 to 20 minutes). Then, carefully choose the delivery channels and check the environment’s functionalities to maximise potential and make objectives and expectations explicit to focus on supporting progress. Sharing worked examples with students before they start practising on their own is an effective strategy, and online videos are particularly good for this.’
Mr Ahmed assesses his pupils’ learning during a field trip to virtual reality glaciers
Our teachers schedule an initial 15-20 minute online lesson which serves 2 purposes: engagement - students miss their teachers and peers and this interaction is crucial in touching base, maintaining that level of support and interaction that is so needed in this time and in doing so, keeps our students engaged. Secondly, the live aspect of the lesson allows our teachers to continue following our instructional principles embedded in our teaching; they can facilitate learning, explain misconceptions, live model and instruct clearly the main task of the lesson.
We note the importance of reducing screen time, both for students and their teachers. So at the end of this initial live session, our teachers will set the independent task to be done away from the screen with a specified time to complete it in.
Managing different systems and platforms was overwhelming at first so we made sure that all work and interactions have been streamlined into one platform: the Dynamic Progress Reporting system - an online platform the school uses to track, monitor and assess student progress. The one new system we have had to quickly get to grips with is Google Meet but we have ensured that the only interactions that should happen on this is the live session - all chat and uploading of work happens via the DPR. It has allowed our students to keep on track of what tasks they need to complete and it allows their teachers to receive and respond to work in a way that is manageable and meaningful. What’s more, our students are familiar with it, our teachers and parents are familiar with it, so this is another level of normality that has helped in this difficult time.
Recording the live sessions on Google Meet has not only helped to curb potential safeguarding implications, but it has also enabled students who cannot access the lesson at the scheduled times (due to limited screen time or not owning a screen) to access these at a later stage and use it to help complete their independent task. With approximately 75% of students across the Trust coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, ensuring all our students have equal access to the internet and a screen is a priority and in the absence of government support, we are urgently exploring how to enable this provision as soon as we can.
3. ‘Use assessment formatively. Instead of focusing on regular tests or exams, the shift to distance learning is an opportunity to use testing as a learning strategy. This kind of retrieval practice can be quicker and less time-consuming, and research shows pupil motivation and success increase when they’re given low-stakes (self)tests to activate prior knowledge.’
The CST Explicit Direct Instruction framework draws on evidence-based pedagogy and includes a memory retrieval starter that teachers have been following; this practice is no different from now. Plugging gaps in learning and focusing on consolidating learning so that gaps don’t occur or widen later on should be a key focus of remote teaching. Curriculum discussions and CPD, for now, will be focused on developing standardised low stakes tests that are mapped to the school’s curriculum - we are in this for the long haul and the impact on learning will be extensive. Tests like these will inform what we teach now and inform what we are dealing with over time.
4. Effective feedback is crucial. It should be goal-oriented and focused on progress. Here too worked examples are very useful. An efficient and effective feedback process should provide clarity on success criteria, transparency about timing, and require pupils to increase effort and aspiration.
We have streamlined all student work to be accessed, submitted and feedback given via the DPR. Set tasks indicate how long the task should take to complete, a realistic deadline of submission provided and an accompanying video (of the live session which includes the explanation, live modelling and instructions given by the teacher), the resource and success criteria for the task. These features are similar to other homework setting online platforms but what makes DPR different is that crucially, any and all tasks set in this way are explicitly linked to the school’s curriculum via specified key learning objectives that are assigned to every student.
Feedback from teachers keeps our students motivated and on track with their learning. The feedback features on the DPR allow whole class feedback as well as more individualised feedback. For many of our students who miss the interactions from their teachers, these features have been vital in keeping in touch and keeping the focus on their learning.
5. ‘Pupils don’t spontaneously choose the most effective learning strategies or plan their time efficiently. Yet that is precisely what distance learning requires them to do and relying on their metacognitive skills risks increasing the attainment gap. Processing content by explaining subject matter or problem-solving steps in their own words to themselves, family or peers can be helpful. Importantly, they will need support to space their studying over time. Multiple study sessions for each topic will ensure they review content. Three over a week is ideal. And of course, make sure pupils feel valued for the work they are doing. Success contributes to motivation, so acknowledging progress and attendance is vital.’
Our students need some level of normality. Their contact with their teachers during live lessons ensure this. By roughly following their school timetabled lessons and with the focus on memory and recall, their learning is spaced over time. We have set up centralised attendance and engagement trackers with data being pulled in from the DPR and with the support from our excellent office and pastoral teams, we make regular phone calls to check in with parents and students. We are able to follow up on attendance and engagement as well as check in on wellbeing.
Developing independent learners has always been a goal for the CST and the DPR’s independent resources portal facilitates this well. In a time like this, students have a wealth of curriculum-linked resources at hand which have been created by their teachers, and should they want to consolidate and practise their learning beyond what is set by their teachers, they can complete the tasks, submit to their teachers and check their progress on their portals. With time on their hands now, we have seen our student use of the independent resources increase significantly.
Celebrations are vital. Our weekly virtual assemblies are heartwarming and celebratory. They recognise the achievements and efforts of students working from home every week and they include messages of support and encouragement from teachers across the school. On average 70% of a cohort have joined the recorded Google Meet, with our largest turnout being from Year 11 so far! We will see what post-Easter looks like but so far, the engagement has indicated the assemblies have been a real success. An added bonus to virtual assemblies that we hadn’t considered is how many parents choose to tune it as well and comments from parents have been overwhelmingly positive.
Mr Vanstone bringing laughter and joy to his year 7s during his virtual assembly
‘Even if all possible steps were taken to minimise the impact of school closures on the attainment gap, having students away from school for a long period is likely to have a substantial impact on attainment, especially for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.’
Sutton Trust research looking at the implications of the Covid-19 crisis on educational inequality, April 2020
According to a recent Teacher Tap survey, we are among 4% of state schools to provide video conferencing to our students compared to 34% of private secondary schools who are providing this. Our teachers, like all teachers across the country, have been phenomenal. Yes, expectations are high. But communication and support is high too. I know there are teachers who are looking after their own families and juggling online teaching. Using team members and line managers to support, collaborative efforts mean we are able to prop each other up when needed whilst maintaining a standard of education we believe is crucial for our students.
My concerns as a Headteacher are probably no different to other Headteachers across the country: staff wellbeing, the impact on learning for our disadvantaged, Year 11s going into Year 12, Year 6s going into Year 7, Year 10s going into Year 11, implications of school re-opening...if I continue this list, we’ll be here all day and this blog is already far too long! I am grateful for the support and collaboration (and the virtual human contact!) I regularly have with my leadership team, the other Heads of schools in our Trust as well as my CEO and Deputy CEO; collaboration at every level is so important. If I had to sum up my learning in the last 4 weeks, it would be the following 4 things:
No one really knows what they are doing so don’t beat yourself up over everything.
Clear communication is key. Listen to your staff. Listen to your students. Listen to your parents.
One size does not fit all but don’t compromise on quality. Adjust, don’t reduce.
Regularly evaluate what is working.
I don’t believe we have got things perfect (who has?) and we are regularly reviewing and receiving feedback with the view to tweak and improve what we are doing. We are at the mercy of the changes that will ensue and government decisions with regards to the future of school closure but whilst we wait for their next move, we can mitigate the vast impact this absence from school will have on our students by doing what we do best-providing them with the best quality education we can possibly give.
Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality
Ensuring the curriculum, teaching and learning remains at the heart of the school development plan