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Choosing a new school? Here’s what to ask about online learning

As if selecting the right school for your child wasn't hard enough, with the possibility of local lockdowns and a second wave, we tapped top local school, West Buckland, for advice.

How was home schooling for you and more importantly, for your child? Did your school deliver fantastic online learning and plenty of contact with teachers or were you left to muddle through with little or no online help?

Muddy’s recent parent lockdown learning survey found that only 56% of parents were satisfied with their children’s learning and development during lockdown and showed that schools which embraced technology delivered a more fulfilling educational experience to kids.

Home schooling may be over for the summer *phew* but with back-to-school just a few short weeks away and talk of a second wave, it’s critical to know what plans your school has in place. Can it ensure your child doesn’t fall behind in the event of another lockdown? How does it deliver home-schooling: is it online or something else? And if we’re in this for the long run, can it flex quickly between home and classroom learning?

We caught up with Phillip Stapleton, head of Barnstaple’s high-performing co-ed day and boarding school West Buckland, and asked him for the lowdown on lockdown learning.

Google Classroom, Show My Homework, Microsoft Teams…Every school seems to be delivering online lessons in a different way. How do I know if my child is getting the best education at home?

Not all schools are delivering online learning. Parents need to understand the difference between online learning and live online lessons. For some, including West Buckland, children get live online lessons every day; for others it means work sent to pupils and submitted to teachers online, with only a limited amount of contact time.

We deliver live lessons via Microsoft Teams which means the teacher is teaching the whole class as live, either with video, audio or both. Teams also has a portal via which children can download work from teachers and upload their homework for it be marked.

How much teacher contact time should a child expect?

As much as possible! Ideally, home learning should follow a normal timetable, as if children are in a classroom. It should be as close to the usual school experience as it can be.

During lockdown, we delivered more than 160,000 live lessons and meetings which meant that pupils enjoyed an average of 8 live lessons a day during lockdown. Children can also ask questions by messaging the teacher directly during a lesson which then the teacher answers on screen.

But might that mean kids end up spending too much time on-screen?

There needs to be a good balance between online learning and down-time. Teachers should incorporate non-screen activities into each lesson. For example, a pupil might be given a 10-minute off-screen challenge – with the teacher still present and accessible if a child needs to ask a question but with the sound muted – and then go back on once the activity is finished.

Should children be doing homework on top of home learning?

We reduced homework in the core subjects during lockdown, although children did have the option of completing work not finished in class, along with homework in creative projects, such as art or drama. Children then submit their work online and it comes back to the child marked by the teacher, via Microsoft Teams. We set a variety of projects and optional challenges to sustain independent learning.

What if my child hates online learning?

Schools need to react quickly to spot if a child is struggling with the demands of online learning. At West Buckland, we identified the children who might struggle before lockdown started so teachers could keep an eye on them once online teaching started.

If any child needs more help, we have the option for him or her to come into school and join the children of key-workers. We’re lucky in that we have a Personalised Learning Department with half a dozen staff which comes into play if a child needs more learning support.

What about virtual social interaction?

Live lessons allow pupils to see each other on-screen, rather like a Zoom call, so pupils have access to each other’s contributions in lessons. Weekly whole school assemblies and taking the register for every lesson all help to keep children in contact with their favourite familiar faces, as well as regular tutor and house interactions.

What if you live in a remote area and the internet is a bit iffy?

Our parents live all over the place so we know all about remote at West Buckland! Some of our pupils have no internet at all, so special provision was made to get work to them.

Despite the vagaries of the internet, one of our music teachers managed to get a whole class to sing together. With headphones on and mikes off, for the children it felt like they were all singing with the teacher, even though they were actually all singing at different internet speeds. Everyone recorded themselves separately, it all got put together and was sent out to give the whole school a lift at the end of term.

What plans do you have in place if there is another lockdown?

At WBS, our strategy is that we’ll continue to deliver a full timetable, moving seamlessly between online and in the classroom, as circumstances dictate. If another lockdown comes, the whole school will move to online learning, even those children who may still physically be able to come into school, so there is a level playing field for all students.

Want to know more? Join West Buckland’s Virtual Open Day, for Prep School on Fri 21 Aug at 6.30pm or Senior School, on Sat 22 Aug at 9.30am. Alternatively, you can get in touch to arrange a visit or a Skype call.

West Buckland School, Barnstaple, Devon EX32 0SX. Tel: 01598 760000

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