Blue Gate Fields Infant School is a three form entry school located in Shadwell, Tower Hamlets, East London.
We currently have 353 on the pupil roll including nursery and reception children - broadly half girls and half boys. The majority of pupils in our diverse school population are learning English as an additional language; with 89 per cent Bangladeshi, four per cent Somali, two per cent Pakistani and five per cent from mixed backgrounds.
Deprivation levels in the area are higher than the national average, 28.3 per cent of pupils are eligible for Free School Meals and 28.6 per cent eligible for Pupil Premium. Many of our families live in rented or temporary accommodation which is often overcrowded. Currently one in four (10,000) school children in Tower Hamlets have no access to digital learning. Following our last Ofsted rating in 2019, Blue Gate Fields continued to be judged a Good school.
Lessons learned during lockdown
The impact of the pandemic brought home to us the importance of ICT as an essential teaching tool, ensuring our pupils continued to learn outside the formal face-to-face classroom setting.
We were very aware of the disadvantage gap widening due to the digital divide and wanted to find ways to address it. Initially during lockdown we were live streaming the first part of the daily literacy, numeracy and phonic sessions via Zoom.
However, it soon became apparent that we had a large number of children who had no access to any devices, or their only access was via their parents’ smartphone, and if devices were available priority went to older siblings.
We could see the impact of this digital divide, and felt strongly that all our pupils deserved equal opportunities to access home learning from the school website, but as an infant school we were not eligible for the Government’s free laptop scheme. Fortunately we were supported by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ EveryChildOnline campaign in partnership with LGfL – The National Grid for Learning’s #BridgeTheDivide initiative, and received 12 laptops as part of the borough’s initiative to provide every school child with access to a device and connectivity.
Seven of the laptops were paid for through personal donations to the borough’s campaign and five additional devices donated in support of The Mayor’s Fund by LGfL. Our pupils were overjoyed to receive the devices - there was lots of laughter and excitement that day! As a school we also made the decision to purchase Amazon fire tablets using the school’s budget.
One of our parent governor’s then notified us of a scheme Vodafone was running, we applied and they kindly donated SIM cards for the parents with no internet access, which was also a great help. Finding out about local and national schemes to support the purchase of devices has really helped us towards our goal of one device per pupil.
The benefits of access to devices at home
With the rapid move to remote learning during lockdown, we became aware of the benefits to both pupils, parents and carers of having devices available at home. Parents were often around for the live streamed lessons so they learned how certain concepts - for example, fractions - were taught, and felt more confident supporting their children’s learning.
Live streaming also gave us the opportunity to communicate directly with our pupils, supporting them in their learning, giving them feedback in “real time” and checking in on their well-being. Pupils could practise their skills and recap and consolidate concepts at their own pace, outside of school time.
They loved using Purple Mash, and eagerly engaged with many of the online learning platforms available for free via LGfL, including online maths games reinforcing important mathematical concepts. They also engaged in phonic sessions from different sources to strengthen and extend their phonic knowledge.
With the closure of libraries and with no physical books being sent home due to Covid safety measures, it was even more vital for our pupils to have access to e-books to ensure they did not fall behind with their reading. Guided reading books were also available on the school website and pupils were encouraged to read a variety of books at their own reading level, and share books with other family members.
The whole experience helped develop independence and pupil’s ownership over their learning. It also ensured that all our pupils were practising and extending their English skills, alongside their home languages.
We didn’t want to lose the advantages that their devices had brought to them during lockdown; combining what we had learnt about digital teaching and learning with the more traditional classroom setting, blended learning seemed the obvious way to go.
Now we are back in school, we recognise all the benefits and flexibility blended learning can provide. Going forward we envisage a blended learning approach.
We have an ICT suite that pupils can access from their class timetable and we are introducing Google Classroom.
The platform will serve as the access point for home learning projects and weekly homework, so learning does not just happen in school - all our pupils will have the opportunity to carry on learning at home. We are also providing parents with guidance and support on how to use the new platform. By facilitating the continuity of learning from school to home we can continue to develop independent learning through longer-term projects linked to humanities, science and PSHE, with a focus on research, developing skills and understanding and sharing knowledge.
Devices will be brought into school at regular intervals so students can share work they have completed at home with the class staff and their peers. And with the school’s “Fit in Five” fitness programme available on the school website, we hope to encourage pupils and their families to be more physically active at home.
We also want to make it easier for working parents to become more involved in their child’s learning, and make communication easier. Previously we were limited to running parent workshops in school, which we knew reduced the accessibility for working parents or those with larger families, but there wasn’t an alternative.
Now we aim to run online curriculum workshops so parents can attend the live sessions or access the workshop video in their own time. We hope to continue using the devices as another way to communicate with working parents who we don’t necessarily often see at the school gates. Having access to electronic devices and connectivity ensures more opportunity for all our pupils to extend their learning and for their parents to be part of their education.
Access to digital learning has a genuine life-changing impact on our pupils, it opens up avenues of learning and a whole range of educational opportunities and experiences that would otherwise be beyond their reach.
What you need to know
- Just having a device available does not ensure that the opportunities for learning and communication can be accessed. Pupils and parents need to feel confident about accessing and using the programmes. Training workshops and contacts in school who can troubleshoot and support parents are vital.
- Use the school website or learning platform as the hub for learners – it’s important to have one place from which pupils can access their learning. Ensure that access is straightforward for pupils and their parents.
- Plan future investment in technology. Although the pandemic forced this rapid development in the use of technology, in the future schools need to consider the cost of maintaining and purchasing new equipment, and making provision in the yearly budget.
- Contact edtech charity LGfL – The National Grid for Learning who provide schools with a one-stop shop for advice, information, resources and devices at significantly discounted prices.
Catherine Jones is Head at Blue Gate Fields Infants School, Shadwell, Tower Hamlets, East London.