Why our distance learning programme has been described as ‘faultless’

Noel Neeson, headmaster at The Blue Coat School, Birmingham, discusses the benefits of creating their own distance learning programme

The most harrowing situations do have the capacity to throw up at least a handful of happy outcomes. Take recent times at The Blue Coat School, Birmingham, for example. Twelve months and more of pandemic has required us to think on our feet and encouraged us to question and develop our practice.

With a spirit and resilience reminiscent of wartime, staff met the challenge of developing a hybrid system, teaching pupils both inside and outside school. Every member of the school community has contributed to the cause with a drive and passion which I still find overwhelming.

Only this week, when the conversation turned to Covid, my head girl posed the question, “Why do you think we have been so successful in responding to the crisis at BCS?”

Happily, parents have described their children as being ‘motivated’, ‘independent’ and ‘engaged’ with the BCS Live distance learning programme and described the programme itself as ‘faultless’, ‘varied’ and ‘impressive’.

The Blue Coat School, Birmingham’s distance learning programme, BCS Live


My head girl evidently understood the importance of each member of the community – pupils, parents, governors and staff – playing his or her individual role to transform an emergency into an opportunity.

When the crisis came, and fluent communication between community elements became more vital than ever, urgent consideration was given to the children ‘on the outside’. Pastoral care provision had to be heightened; safeguarding concerns to be managed and met.

With fortnightly phone calls, form tutors supported all children and their families, staff recording the outcomes and reporting daily to the leadership team. Meanwhile, risk assessments enabled us to track children’s welfare and suggest any necessary intervention, including asking children to return to school.

If all this suggests that ‘life around lockdowns’ has been merely crisis management, there have been some notably happy consequences of a plague which has thrown so many young lives into disorder.

There is evidence, for example, that our children have been spending more time engrossed in their books; guided reading, four times a week, certainly went down well with the vast majority.

It may also be the case that online learning has given some of our more diffident children a boost in confidence. Many who had found it difficult to put up their hands in class benefited from an online system where name-tagged lollipop sticks gave them attention.

Reported the Education Endowment Foundation, “Supporting pupils to work independently can improve learning outcome.” This was certainly true for the pupils at BCS. While all online work has been differentiated, the ability to study at their own pace at home has proved a blessing for the slower workers.

It may also be the case that online learning has given some of our more diffident children a boost in confidence

And for parents? The pandemic revealed to many the range and complexity of what is expected of their offspring in school. Mums and Dads may now better understand their children’s challenges and be (even) more empathetic.

Certainly, many have waxed lyrical about our provision. A survey of parent satisfaction had an 85% excellent rate – an astounding statistic!

And there are more ticks in the plus column. Using Google Meet will be second nature for our youngsters in the future. Children from reception to year six are really equipped. As increasingly independent learners, the prep pupils were shown how to upload and submit their work.

Video tutorials, shared during year group assemblies, developed the pupils’ skillset. Now, it seems we can challenge them to a greater degree technologically. And, of course, touch-typing skills have developed at pace.

And how was it all put together? BCS Live was designed and developed here on site. Within days of the first national lockdown a pilot lesson was created on Google. High-quality resources simulated the live classroom experience.

The staff were trained through recorded and live online tutorials by a progressive and child-centred academic team, and pupils were provided with challenging tasks to complete at home. The team also created exemplar lessons to cascade best practice across the school.

Within a couple of weeks, the staff were ready to roll out an exceptional live, virtual learning experience with pre-recorded video and audio content. As a contingency plan, teachers from reception to year six were paired with a buddy and coached by the academic team.

Lessons, resources and Google Classrooms were monitored and staff given regular feedback. We were determined, of course, that staff would continue to produce a broad and balanced online curriculum, lessons being produced according to the strengths of the respective teams.

Customised Google Slides were created for all subjects. These, and the corresponding Docs/Sheets were accessed by children in school and those working from home. Resources included BCS avatars (wearing school uniform) and the programme was designed to provide an experience in which pupils would continue to thrive despite extenuating circumstances.

Each lesson was linked to our ‘BCS Blue’ assessment tool, and pupils were given immediate verbal feedback during timetabled lessons. Written feedback followed, after the pupils submitted work.

Things continued to evolve. During the second lockdown, the decision to enable the cameras on Google Meet relieved the sense of isolation that can be a negative for those studying at home. Pupils, wearing their school uniforms, could see their teachers and peers and enjoy a ‘normal’ weekly timetable with access to the full curriculum, with a full ensemble of specialist teachers.

Now, we are back, and embracing ideas forged in the fire. BCS may be located in Britain’s second city but we like to think that, by adapting and innovating, our distance learning programme is second to none.

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