Hello from Oxford!
This is the first article of three as part of our mini-series Boarding School At Home. Please check back in a few days for the next two articles on extracurricular activities and school culture.
Teaching in An Online World
In some ways, a school day for Justus, a pupil at Bede’s School in Sussex, hasn’t changed all that much. He still goes to assembly in the morning, and catches up with his friends and tutor in their tutor period. Then his lessons start, followed by his usual morning break. He has two more lessons in the afternoon, another break, and on Wednesdays and Fridays, another two lessons after that. It’s his normal routine — except, of course, that he does it all from a desk in his bedroom.
So how does Bede’s ensure the school day on his laptop screen is as engaging and stimulating as it would be in real life? “In the private sector, the facilities, the grounds, the ambience, are so amazing,” says Stephen Curran, an independent education expert. “It’s incredibly difficult to recreate that incredible experience online, so the quality of delivery is the key thing if parents are going to feel like they’ve benefited from private education.”
Getting our own online lesson: Antonia and Ferdinand talking to Rick Clarke of Frensham Heights School for podcast "Tea with the Head"
Quite. Without face-to-face contact, schools are having to rack their brains to think of engaging ways to deliver the curriculum, especially in subjects that would normally be taught using hands-on methods. And we’ve been amazed at what they’ve come up with!
Emily, an IB student at Haileybury in Hertfordshire, told us that her Design and Technology department had been sending out packages with building kits in them for the students; Joss Buchanan, principal at King William’s College on the Isle of Man, gave an example from the junior school, where they’d taught pupils about raising agents in science by teaching them to bake scones at home. At Cheltenham Ladies’ College in Gloucestershire, teachers and technicians living on site have been filming themselves doing live experiments in the science labs, while at Wells Cathedral School in Somerset, the in-house studio technicians have been stitching together pupils’ recordings to help deliver the music curriculum.
Schools are also having to decide how they balance live teaching with independent learning tasks and pre-recorded lessons.
“We have to think about how we structure our lessons so they’re not just staring at the screen the whole time,” says Natalie Perry, deputy head of academics at Wells. Teachers are encouraged to greet pupils and teach live at the start of the lesson, before allowing pupils to go away from the screen to read a textbook or make notes, and then return online for discussions at the end.
Antonia and Ferdinand getting an online lesson about King William's College from Joss Buchanan
It’s a strategy we’ve seen lots of schools following, and one that education experts recommend.
“It’s about keeping children engaged and things being enjoyable,” says Sandra Leaton Gray, professor of education at University College London. “Videocasts, podcasts, a bit of live teaching, thoughtful activities that the children will try and work through on their own.” Ms Gray said teachers and parents should be slightly wary of some educational apps and platforms, which can be harmful. “In a lot of education platforms they’re used to using nudge notifications and these are usually quite addictive. It’s important to make sure children still retain an intrinsic desire to learn.”
Pupils we spoke to were largely really satisfied with teachers’ efforts, although they acknowledged that some subjects (and some teachers) are better suited to online learning. “There are some teachers who are really motivated to try and make their lessons as interactive as possible and others who are just sharing a powerpoint,” says Justus. “Our maths lessons are good because it’s easier when we’re online for our teacher to go in a private conversation (a private “room” on Zoom or Google Meets) with us and explain it to us when you don’t have to be in front of the whole class.”
Meanwhile Katerina, an IB student at Charterhouse in Surrey, said she was surprised how well online school worked in some subjects — and she thinks it’s actually made her more productive! “In English we all have our cameras on and are unmuted, and we just discuss a poem. I imagined that English would be really hard online, but it turned out to be just fine,” she says.
This time solo: Ferdinand recording a podcast interview mid-session
At Bede’s, the lessons are always live, which Justus has mixed feelings about. “Sometimes it would be more useful if they would just give us a task in our time, but it’s good in my opinion that they try and make it as active as possible.”
Trying to make things work for different students with different preferences is a big challenge in an online environment. All the schools we spoke to acknowledged that they’ve had to adjust their expectations of how much content they can cover — something that most exam boards have also compensated for. “It’s about making sure we keep the expectations of standards up, but modify that to acknowledge the practical challenges that our students face,” says Matthew Lim, head of digital education at Cheltenham.
Ms Gray says that in such extreme circumstances, schools have to see their role as being slightly different than normal. “Your starting point has to be ‘How can we give these kids a good pandemic?’, not ‘What are we missing from the time we had before that was completely different?’” she says.
Mid-chat with the lovely Alastair Thige, headmaster of Wells Cathedral School
Timetabling for virtual school
It’s not just about the individual lessons. Schools have also had to think about how to approach timetabling, especially with international pupils all around the globe. At the start of lockdown, Mr Lim created a “roadmap” for their online teaching, catering for pupils in the UK and those as far away as Australia, Brasil, Singapore, and Malaysia. “We looked geographically at where the girls are in the world, and which lessons we could realistically expect them to attend,” he says. Lessons are recorded, to make sure those that can’t attend them live because of the time difference can work to their own schedule.
Almost all schools we’ve spoken to have said that maintaining a semblance of routine, of school’s daily rhythms, is a priority in their approach to online learning.
“We’ve made online schooling look as much like the school day as possible,” says Mr Buchanan, echoing the response from other heads. “There’s tutor time, chapel service, assemblies, almost everything.” Ms Perry says it’s been important to keep the school timetable in place to “keep that contact” with pupils’ studies.
Rick Clarke, headmaster of Frensham Heights in action for podcast "Tea with the Head"
Interestingly, this approach seems to work better for some pupils more than others. Katerina says it’s a relief, considering the lack of structure she sees in some of her German friends’ online schooling. “It’s not very different from normal school really, we just log on,” she says. “I personally am really glad that I went to England to a private boarding school because I hear about my friends here in Germany, and some of them barely have lessons.”
Despite trying to keep the school day as normal as possible, we noticed that most schools had made two small modifications — lessons are shorter, to mimic the break students would get when walking between classrooms, and most have moved Saturday school lessons to the weekdays, to give pupils free weekends away from their screens. At King William’s, students are also tasked to spend Fridays on educational activities away from the screen. “Curiously, it’s much more demanding than normal school and you have to build in bigger breaks,” says Mr Buchanan.
Recording a podcast intro - Ferdinand during one of his better covid-19 hair days
Haileybury has taken a more radical approach. Rather than moving the normal timetable online, their head of academics created an online schooling website with an entirely new timetable for each pupil. The idea was not to recreate a school day in an online world, but instead, to try and work out the best way to teach pupils online, full stop.
“The whole system of online school was very much new and no one has really done it like we did,” says Emily. “I think the whole set up of the website was really special.” To study for her IB, Emily had one live lesson on Zoom per day, covering a different subject each day of the week. “The rest was independent work, because they didn’t want us to have loads of screentime,” she says. Since December, more of Emily’s lessons are now taught online rather than via independent learning, but she prefers the old model.
Always an education - talking to the inspirational Eve Jardine-Young, headmistress of CLC
Test and learn, test and learn
When we’re all focusing on how pupils are adapting to online teaching, it’s easy to forget that creating these impressive programmes has been a huge learning exercise for the schools as well. And they’re constantly tweaking their online models based on feedback from parents, staff, and parents.
Almost all schools we spoke to said they had “started with a bit too much”, and had to add in more free time and breaks away from the screen for pupils. “We started with setting homework, which we had to scrap because we thought it was too much,” says Mr Buchanan.
Wells and King William’s sent out feedback surveys over the holidays, which they then acted on, while Cheltenham upgraded classrooms’ technical kit, adding webcams and conference microphones for the teachers streaming lessons on site.
Ingrid, Katerina’s mother, says she has been really excited by Charterhouse’s “professionalism” and how they keep parents in the loop. “I was really impressed by the speed with which the school changed to the home schooling system. I’m also very impressed by their readiness to inform parents — they are doing live webinars for us, on IB preparation, university applications, everything.”
Katerina says sometimes she is asked for subject specific feedback. “For example in our maths department, what they’re doing now is asking what is going well in the maths lessons and what is harder to teach the students.” Justus, meanwhile, has to fill in a learning log after every lesson. “We have to complete it and say what we learnt if we got sent any prep and we go through it with our tutor if we had any problems.”
Joss Buchanan on our podcast "Tea with the Head" - the man has stories!
Some schools were definitely more prepared than others for a digital world. Quite amazingly, Cheltenham hired Mr Lim as head of digital education three years ago, so pupils and teachers were already used to Microsoft Teams, uploading homework to digital portals, and making digital copies of handwritten notes. “The strategy was in place pre-Covid, so while it caught us off guard, we were prepared for it,” Mr Lim explains. “It was nice to have this experimental pedagogy turn into mission critical.” We bet!
Other schools without the in-house expertise looked outwards for advice. Haileybury, for example, consulted models from schools in Asia who had gone into lockdown a few months earlier, while Wells turned to the music institutions it has connections with. “Because we have such good links with the conservatoires, we’ve been able to pick their brains on what works well,” says Ms Perry. “We’re fortunate enough that we have our own in-house tech team, but we’ve learnt a lot from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and the Royal Opera House, who are all doing rehearsals and auditions online.”
A contemplative Ben Figgis, headmaster of Ardingly College on "Tea with the Head"
To help staff rise to the challenge, schools have had to provide digital training and equipment to teachers as well. “We’ve probably still got some teachers in the private system who have been there for about 40 years,” Mr Curran points out. “They’ve delivered the same stuff for decades, teaching their latin class in the same way, and suddenly they’re confronted with this online world. It’s no mean feat.”
For example, at King William’s, they bought each member of staff a drawing tablet, and tech whiz teachers taught others how to use them. But Mr Buchanan pointed out that sometimes, it’s not the end of the world if some staff prefer more traditional methods. “No one in the history department ever worked out how to use the tablet, but the maths department use it every lesson,” he laughs. “It’s probably quite nice to have some variety.”
At Cheltenham, Mr Lim set up “teacher forums” where they held tech skills sessions. “At any organisation you have people with a range of abilities,” he says. “We broke down and surveyed staff into a range of competencies, from “I really need help” to “I am happy to offer help”, so we could train each other. If someone is struggling they drop into the forum and they’ll get replies within a few minutes.”
One thing we were perhaps surprised by was that schools don’t seem to be checking on pupils’ equipment and set ups at home. Bursary students are being helped with laptops and tablets, but we thought it would be easy to check all pupils have a chair that won’t hurt their back, and things like that. The schools said they check pupils are learning in a happy and healthy environment by having cameras on in lessons and through pastoral care (which we’ll look at in-depth in a later article), but we thought they should probably approach the practical side of things too.
Alastair Tighe of Wells Cathedral telling us of one of his funnier moments during lockdown
Mr Lim jokes that his role as head of digital education means he’s ruined snow days forever — in a digitally enabled school, it doesn’t matter if you can’t be there in person. Jokes aside, the tech transformation at boarding schools has definitely led to some ways of working that both students and teachers will want to retain after the pandemic.
“Both staff and pupils have realised that there’s some tech that they’d like to keep hold of,” Ms Perry says. Google classroom, flip learning models, apps to annotate PDFs, and recorded lessons, have all turned out to be valuable revision and learning resources.
As Mr Curran says, “This whole thing has pushed us forward, and there’s a positive side to it too. So now we need to say, ‘So what can we do with it?’”