A whole new approach to distance learning

Zeba Clarke, deputy head academic at King Edward’s Witley, details the school’s distance learning journey, from planning, to embracing a new programme, to what will change as children return

When news of a virus outbreak in China first started to trickle through to the UK, who could have predicted the events that followed, as the coronavirus pandemic took its deadly grip on the world? Following the lockdown announcement in the UK, schools were forced to consider a whole new way of delivering learning to their pupils.

With limited time to prepare for such a seismic shift, senior leadership teams had to act fast and the ensuing period has been a major exercise in testing the resilience, flexible thinking and creative flair of schools across the country.

Stressed and worried parents, some desperately trying to juggle working remotely with home schooling their children, find themselves in uncharted waters. With no previous benchmark for evaluating the standard of virtual schooling, it is difficult for them to recognise if their school of choice is providing an acceptable or exceptional service during these challenging times.

One school trailblazing the way in which distance learning is delivered is King Edward’s Witley, a Surrey-based independent co-educational day and boarding school for 11–18-year olds.

Speedy response

We quickly realised that we needed to put in place a whole new approach to learning. We took one day to set up the distance learning programme that ran from 23–27 March, the week preceding the start of the Easter holidays (the UK was put into lockdown on 23 March).

Colleagues consulted a range of sources, taking much inspiration from the work by international schools in Hong Kong and China, some of whom had shut down as early as December. This helped us adjust our timings and planning. Our staff worked independently during the Easter break to plan and prepare materials for the upcoming term.

We had two further days of planning and training at the start of term, largely to familiarise everyone with different aspects of the Zoom technology which we had identified as the best in class to fulfil our teaching needs. We are very blessed with an amazing IT department whose support has been critical to the successful delivery of online learning – they have even created help sheets and videos to guide us all through the systems and technologies.

The school was very clear from the outset that pupils should be provided with a broad range of learning opportunities with plenty of scope for more independent, in-depth study across a variety of subjects. Much thought went into creating a home-learning experience which as far as possible, emulated the traditional school day, allowing for plenty of interaction and collaboration. Pupils are able to contact their housemaster/housemistress and teachers via daily rollcalls, individual tutorial sessions, drop-ins and clinics. In their houses, pupils even have virtual ‘cheese toastie’ nights temporarily replacing the much-loved post-homework snack time at 8.30pm on Wednesdays.

Blended learning

Rather than rely exclusively on live lessons delivered by Zoom, which would potentially lead to excessive screen time, the school blends synchronous and asynchronous learning using a mix of face-to-face lessons, clinics, online forums and discussion boards.

Pupils generally have between two and five active Zoom lessons per day, but teachers are on stand-by during timetabled lessons to answer queries and support individual pupils, paired students and small groups with tutorials where pupils may be running into difficulties. Given the international nature of the pupil community, King Edward’s is also running extra sessions early in the morning for those students whose time zones do not allow them to join classes easily.

The balance is currently in favour of live sessions. We have divided subjects into a compulsory core and options, so reducing, for example from 14–15 subjects for our younger students to 9–10 subjects. All students have a compulsory weekly lesson in each subject they take, and, in the main, teachers are generally providing two lessons per week with additional clinics and drop-in sessions. The live lessons are proving very popular and are helping our pupils to establish a sense of normality during this unsettling period.

Continuation of co-curricular

Just as pupils enjoy co-curricular subjects during ‘normal’ term time, the focus on learning outside of the classroom also remains integral to the distance-learning programme. King Edward’s enjoys an impressive reputation for its musical, creative, physical and community service activities which run alongside the academic learning and these have all been successfully translated into a distance-learning format.

The music department’s virtual world of music encompasses the delivery of individual music lessons, small ensembles and rehearsals for chapel choir and orchestra. Budding composers have access to a range of music technology software, bands are still rocking and there is even a KESW@HomeTogether music extravaganza scheduled.

Pupils with a leaning towards arts and crafts can choose from a wide variety of photography and textiles projects, origami and drawing tutorials and imaginative, cross-curricular art sessions. For those destined to tread the boards, the drama department is running monologue training (ideal for audition preparations and LAMDA practice) while the Theatre Makers Club provides pupils with a chance to collaborate with others to create remotely an original theatrical performance.

Pupil wellbeing remains at the top of the school agenda, so the physical education department is keeping everyone on their toes with a huge variety of online activities including hotly contested keepie-uppie sessions, yoga, indoor mountaineering, Pilates, running club and other fitness routines. Pupils in all year groups have been very enthusiastic in their approach to the co-curricular activity programme. In terms of physical training, the Strava running and bike clubs, live fitness classes, HIIT sessions and live yoga have all proved very popular.

On the creativity and skills front, essential cookery and mindfulness are amongst the most sought-after activities with a pleasing number of pupils trying something new, immersing themselves in first aid training, magic skills, investing club or play scriptwriting.

Commenting on the response to the co-curricular offering, head of middle school, Jim Langan, says: “At a time when it is potentially difficult to get outside, maintain friendships or even have a conversation with someone, thanks to the excellent programme put together by Mark Harrison, our director of co-curriculum, the school has offered a wider range of involvements than ever before and perhaps one of the sweetest outcomes has been the unanimous uptake of help at home as a service activity.”

Pupils embrace change

Children are renowned for their resilience, but head of lower school Steve Gardner has been impressed by the speed at which even the younger members of the King Edward’s Witley pupil community have embraced the changes.

He says: “Most pupils have adapted really well and really quickly – it certainly is a timely reminder that many of our young people are more IT literate than we give them credit for. The lower school pupils have fully entered into remote learning and have showed real engagement with Zoom lessons and also the self-directed aspect of learning from home. One or two have struggled with their organisation but have been supported on a one-to-one level either by their tutor or by our head of learning support.

“As ever, we love listening to our pupils’ feedback and hearing their response to the distance-learning programme is critical to its success. Pupils often provide insightful and astute ideas as to how things can be improved, so we host tutor time on Zoom twice a week which allows pupils to air their thoughts. In addition, I hold a weekly Q&A session on Zoom for all lower school pupils to provide them with an opportunity to have their voices heard.”

Just as adults may be prone to feeling isolated during the lockdown, the same applies to children, who are likely to be acutely affected by the enforced social distancing restrictions, so the school is at pains to ensure no pupil feels isolated or too removed from their friends and peers.

Much thought went into creating a home-learning experience which as far as possible, emulated the traditional school day, allowing for plenty of interaction and collaboration

Gardner continues: “Pupils are regularly in contact with each other as they share Zoom lessons and tutorials. They are also making contact with each other on their phones, using popular apps, when in non-contact lessons and reports from parents suggest that they are all helping each other with their work. I have been hearing of whole-class gaming sessions in the evenings which (I never thought I’d say this) is certainly keeping people connected in a playful, harmless way. As house parents, my wife and I even recorded a lockdown song (set to Shotgun by George Ezra) to entertain the children – resulting in an appearance on our local radio station!”

New bespoke courses

King Edward’s has also acknowledged the impact of the unprecedented cancellation of exams on its pupils. For students who would have been embarking on their GCSEs, the school has developed a bespoke ‘Skills for Sixth Form’ programme, offering bridging courses to A-level and IB students, a research project, guidance and information on accessing the world of work – including dress codes, CV development, applications for internships or work experience and interview techniques.

As head of middle school, Langan reports excellent feedback on the unique initiative: “The Skills for Sixth Form programme has been incredibly well received. Even pupils who are considering other institutions for the next step of their education journey are enthusiastically taking advantage of what is on offer.

“The chance to not waste time but begin sixth form study at a higher level, to avail themselves of expert careers advice and opportunities (such as online work experience with professionals) and to be pushed to improve their metacognitive skills which will impact positively on their studies, represents a powerful motivational force – regardless of the temporary obstacle of school closure. Considering the speed at which this resource was developed, the quality of what is on offer is astounding and exciting to our year 11 pupils.”

Running alongside this, members of the upper sixth are following a ‘Skills for Future Success’ course to help them prepare for the worlds of work and university. The course comprises academic, careers and life-skills guidance, and even incorporates advice on budgeting, conflict-resolution, cooking and household maintenance. Some upper sixth pupils are capitalising on the opportunity to draw on the support of an academic supervisor to complete a research project in an area related to their first-year undergraduate studies.

While it remains unclear as to when precisely all pupils can return to the physical classroom, for students at King Edward’s Witley, it is business as usual, and school is most definitely not out for summer!

You might also like: The value of service learning during a pandemic

1 Comment
  • Phil Garner
    Phil Garner

    This is a most enlightened response and, I am sure, has been well-received by the students.
    The co-curricular programme and the focus on well-being are key and I am delighted to read of the choirs and music continuing throughout the closure.
    Phil Garner
    Blue Cow Online College

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