Education has been faced with unique and monumental challenges since the pandemic began in March last year.
As a sector, we should be proud of the levels of resilience, courage and innovation demonstrated by leaders, staff, parents and children alike.
As the director of primary for Windsor Academy Trust (WAT), I have had the privilege of working with a brilliant team to evolve our primary remote education offer. Throughout this process, we have never lost sight of our moral imperative – enabling our young people to thrive so that they can reach their academic and personal potential. Windsor Academy Trust is a family of four secondary and five primary schools situated in the West Midlands.
It certainly seems a long time ago since we first implemented remote learning in the spring and summer of 2020. Like other schools and organisations, we moved quickly to support our staff, students and families, enabling students to continue their learning and development. Setting solid foundations has allowed our remote education to evolve and grow across our primary schools.
When I look back, our early investment in student devices, professional development for staff and use of Google Classroom from Year 2 to Year 6 were a catalyst for our initial success. We used our own pre-recorded clips to teach new content and started to pilot live lessons. Strong communication with parents and an unshakable focus on student safety and wellbeing have been at the heart of our work throughout.
There has been some healthy debate in the sector regarding the use of live lessons. Our focus has been on providing a remote learning experience that replicates the school day as close as possible – that is why we decided live lessons would be a crucial part of our offer.
Live lessons would enable us to continue to connect with students (albeit virtually!) and keep to teaching routines as much as possible. With this in mind, staff had further live lesson training in the autumn, helping us be on the front foot for what was to come in January.
Seeing how staff rose to the challenge of supporting our students during the most recent national lockdown is one of my proudest moments in education. Staff have been brilliantly adaptable and creative, whether teaching critical and vulnerable children in school or delivering live lessons from home. It has been a truly remarkable effort.
In recognition of this effort, the engagement levels in each year group’s twice-daily live lessons went up to 90 per cent across our primary schools, surpassing the levels of remote learning engagement seen in the first lockdown.
Covid-19 has clarified the importance of humility and context – we have all been working in unique circumstances to design something that fits our particular communities’ needs. There is certainly no higher ground in one particular approach, and collaborating and learning from others in the sector has helped us reflect and sharpen what we do.
We all know the phrase ‘culture is king’, and when I reflect on the last year, our culture has been vital to our success. There has, of course, been time for pushing a strategy forward, but it would have been fragile without a positive culture. Here are some of the fundamental principles that have helped our remote learning to evolve and our young people to thrive:
Collaboration: this is a vital part of our culture. As we’ve developed our remote learning, it has been the glue that has held us together. Our leaders and staff have worked closely within and across schools to develop planning and resources. We’ve also kept other trust-wide collaborative priorities going, such as whole-class reading and our Aspire Curriculum. Having an eye on future improvement has proved uplifting.
Professional Learning: our staff are our greatest asset, and their development is vital. During the pandemic, we have continued to make professional learning a priority with regular training sessions helping staff refine their work, whether on the use of technology or live lessons. Staff have developed their talents and adopted new and creative ways of working.
Teaching and Learning: our emphasis on live lessons has enabled us to continue our focus on high-quality teaching and learning. We drew on external research and our own best practice to develop six guiding principles of impactful remote education. These principles provide clarity, consistency and a common language when we talk about remote education and are brought to life across our Trust every day.
Digitally Rich Environments: an intentional focus on creating digitally rich environments has been essential to our remote learning approach. Our staff and students have worked with Google applications for several years, meaning a smooth transition into Google Classrooms and live teaching through Google Meet. Investing in technology and moving towards one-to-one devices through our iPads for Learning project has put devices in hands and homes at a critical time and enabled teaching and learning to continue uninterrupted.
Character Virtues and Learner Skills: our Aspire framework sets out the character virtues and learner skills critical in helping our young people reach their academic and personal potential.
Never have these skills been more prevalent or essential during Covid-19. Our students have had to draw on these skills daily when learning remotely, and our Aspire Challenge has enabled students to aspire to be the best learner and best people they can be. Metacognition will continue to be at the forefront of our work when more students start returning to school.
Our remote education offer has undoubtedly evolved and enabled our young people to thrive at a challenging time in education. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, ‘out of adversity comes opportunity’. Through Covid-19, we have learned so much about ourselves and others and how we should shape education in the future. The next part of children’s exciting journey starts here – I personally cannot wait to see their learning accelerate as we emerge stronger from Covid-19.
Implementing impactful remote education
- Create a digitally rich environment – Remote education is about much more than devices. Create the right environment for students to thrive and use the most effective apps to accelerate learning.
- Provide training and encourage collaboration – It is essential to provide staff training and opportunities to learn through collaboration with others to gain buy-in and successfully adopt new approaches.
- Focus on learner skills – As students take on more responsibility for their learning, helping students learn how to learn is vital. Focus on developing learner skills such as self-quizzing to support the retention of knowledge.
- Align remote education to good teaching and learning practice – Everything we know about a quality curriculum still applies. Remote education needs to be aligned to good teaching and learning practice and carefully sequenced:
- Connect and engage with students and use techniques to get students participating early in lessons
- Use high-quality explanation and modelling that is clear and simple to help students produce excellent work
- Use carefully guided scaffolded practice to provide students with the opportunity to practice and develop mastery
Matt Meckin is director of primary at Windsor Academy Trust.