Reports of a flu-like illness began circulating as early as 2019 and speaking to our Chinese students meant we were able to see what may be across the horizon. So by Christmas, our senior leadership team had started to discuss what it might mean for curriculum delivery for those who might have to return home.
By January 2020 I was asked to explore how the school might support international pupils remotely. As the UK entered lockdown on 23 March last year, we reopened our doors ‘virtually’ just a week later.
In many ways, we simply saw the move as an opportunity to drive forward software we already had in place. My team and I trained staff and pupils – some 750 of them – across Microsoft Teams and developed supporting ‘how-tos’ and crib sheets, as well as drop-in lunchtime sessions for those who needed a bit more of a 1:1 approach.
Although there were some early teething problems, by the beginning of April 2020 we were teaching ‘live’ lessons for eight hours a day to all pupils aged 7-18. And it wasn’t just core subjects. From hockey practice to cookery, Makaton to music appreciation, pupils had the opportunity to access the full curriculum with a mixture of live and pre-recorded content with innovative ways of programme delivery developed all the time.
As the forerunners of the technology scramble began to emerge, we started to see many online applications start to integrate with Microsoft Teams – such as Flipgrid, Kahoot and Bookwidget – and happily, Teams has continued to upgrade, introducing new features to complement online lessons.
Admittedly, pre-lockdown there was already a wealth of online educational resources, but there has been a forced major leap forward for education in fully embracing digital technology.
If we can turn to positives, the beauty of the situation has been the speed of the rate of change. We have seen innovation and a willingness to create new ways of working that was undoubtedly required to shake up the sector. Within our school, we have seen so many examples of teachers feeling invigorated and challenged by this, and that can only ever be a good thing for pupils.
However, I believe the real impact is not yet known.
In many ways, we simply saw the move as an opportunity to drive forward software we already had in place
The Sutton Trust recently reported that 86% of independent schools offered live lessons during the compulsory closure period, with only 50% of state schools doing so. We can see that across all blended learning components, and the gap has grown since the first lockdown.
Just 5% of teachers in state schools reported that all their students had a device; this compares to 54% at private schools. We can see a very similar picture regarding those with access to a high-speed internet connection.
We must address this divide as the government turns attention to how our generation of ‘Covid kids’ will catch up.
As hybrid learning becomes embedded in everyday school life, it means that geographical location is no longer a factor. This could apply to all sorts of situations where children cannot physically attend school – from a long-term illness to travel issues.
And the same is true for teaching staff – we could now easily conceive a situation where a team member or guest lecturer might deliver a session from thousands of miles away and across a different time zone. This will only serve to improve and enhance educational experiences and who can access them.
From catch-up sessions to specialist subject clinics, the scope of how the independent and state sector could partner up to share experiences, resources and expertise is wide-reaching – so much can be done to benefit those who’ve missed out.
As we begin to plan for the future, there’s something incredibly exciting about that.