We need to keep celebrating students’ online learning triumphs
Sports halls and drama studios are empty once more, but it is vital to showcase the excellent education children have been receiving online, writes Nicky Adams
The pace of education technology in independent schools has picked up like Mo Farah in the last 400 metres of a middle-distance race. In just one burst of lightning speed, many years of technological ground have been covered and teaching staff have had to sprint to keep up. To their credit, they have, and education is – perhaps unintentionally, but undoubtedly - the richer for it.
New ways have been found to replicate the bricks-and-mortar educational experience to make it suitable for remote learning. But schools have also enhanced it, developed it and reshaped it for the modern age our current school students will inhabit and influence as adults.
This view from inside the independent school sector is a clear one, but from the outside, the picture can be fuzzy. Parents, many also trying to hold down their own work from home during the last lockdown, were at the sharp end of remote education last time around. While they may have been across their own children’s learning, lockdown can bring with it a sense of insularity.
"It’s hard to get a sense of the bigger picture when you only see the screens of your own children’s laptops."
It can take away that overview of the school’s output brought about by standing on the touchline of the school astro to watch a hockey match, being in the audience for the annual play, applauding an informal recital, admiring the GCSE art exhibition or even attending the end-of-term parents’ association ball. It’s hard to get a sense of the bigger picture when the only screens you have to go on are your own children’s laptops or mobile devices.
So, it is hugely important that educational excellence continues to be communicated to current and prospective parents - to evidence the fact that the quality of the education on offer at independent schools has not diminished, just adapted and developed, for the better.
During the last lockdown, and with school buildings closed to all but the children of key workers, some independent schools were quick to take advantage of the Government’s offer to furlough staff, particularly of the non-teaching variety. Marketing offices were hard hit, and in many cases were reduced to a team of one to keep the PR plates spinning. While making videos to replace school tours and conundrums over entrance interviews were of course priorities, some unfortunately forgot to communicate the education that was taking place over the wifi networks.
"Current students’ parents will again be looking for reassurance that their school fees are being put to good use."
To parents and other interested parties, "radio silence" equals "nothing happening" – which in most cases, is far from the reality and does a disservice to the school leaders and teaching staff who have worked tirelessly and creatively to make sure their students’ education is uninterrupted.
Current students’ parents will again be looking for reassurance that their school fees are being put to good use - that the breadth, and of course the quality, of the education they have so carefully chosen for their children is not being compromised, and that they themselves are not being short-changed.
A survey of 500 UK families with an annual household income of over £60,000 carried out by education market researchers MTM Consulting in June 2020 found that 90 per cent of the parents of independent school pupils rated the remote learning provided by their children’s fee-charging schools as "very good" or "good". Whether the remaining 10 per cent would have been happy with their children’s learning if they had known more about the provision being offered is not known. But certainly the awareness of parents of the output of their chosen independent school has a bearing on their perception. How can you highly rate a lesson or activity you didn’t know was happening?
"Most independent schools have done a sterling job in moving a high-quality education from the classroom to the kitchen table."
Of course, not all schools are created equal and, while the majority of independent schools have done a sterling job in moving a high-quality education from the classroom to the kitchen table, others have struggled. Lack of resources, expertise and agility have hampered many schools, particularly those most challenged in the state sector.
Eighty-nine per cent of the state school pupils’ parents who took part in MTM’s survey rated the quality of remote learning their children had received during the term of closure as less than "good". Indeed, over half (54 per cent) of the families in the MTM survey who were not paying school fees said they would now be more likely to consider an independent school.
This was borne out very quickly at the start of the Autumn term 2020, when independent schools’ admissions officers were receiving more phone calls than usual from the parents of state school pupils. Concerned that their children were lagging behind in their education after the term of school closure, they were suddenly keen to make the financial sacrifices necessary to fund places at independent schools. Many perceived they had maintained the quality of education they had found to be lacking towards the end of the previous academic year.
"Convince heads of department that people are keen to see how they have adapted their lessons."
This positive perception can only come about through communication. Keeping the school website, newsletter and the social media channels updated, filling it with a stream of images, video, sound files and stories of pupils developing academically and personally is the way to show the high quality learning taking place on the airwaves and out of sight.
Keeping in contact with heads of academic departments, convincing them that people are keen to see how they have adapted their lessons and the creative responses of their pupils, and asking for examples to share, is essential to emphasise that education is strong and vibrant in independent schools.
Video - the ideal medium for social media and website news posts – short clips of drama performances, even if solo at home; PE fitness and dance routines; perhaps animations the pupils have made themselves… teachers are using all of these to turn online learning to their pupils’ advantage.
Sound files – home compositions using music software, instrumental practice and performance are all great to hear.
Images – this is a great time to encourage the creativity of pupils of all ages, so ask the head of art to pass on images of drawings, sculptures or artworks of any kind, including digital art using tablet and pencil.
"Seeing a happy child engaged with learning could bring a smile to the face of a shielding grandparent."
Many schools are again setting exciting cross-curricular projects and young people themselves are often inspirational in their use of a variety of media to capture their progress and present their work – film-making, stop-motion, animation, video diaries, for example.
Work closely with the academic staff to give a cross-section of the vibrancy of education independent school pupils are engaged in and never stop communicating the excellence and variety. Seeing their work applauded and publicised can be a boost to young people – at a time when boosts are welcome more than ever.
Current parents can rest assured that their children’s education is continuing apace, prospective parents can get a glimpse of a potential future for their own children and, if, on top of all that, seeing a happy child engaged with learning brings a smile to the face of a shielding grandparent, it will all have been worthwhile.
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