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Facilitating a broad and balanced curriculum during distance learning

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9 min read

Context

Ryders Hayes is a two-form entry primary school with students aged two to eleven, from pre-school to Year 6. The school has 472 students on roll and is located in the Midlands, UK. Eighteen per cent of students are currently eligible for Pupil Premium funding. The school is predominantly a white-British school with about three per cent of students speaking EAL. About 20 per cent of students have SEND. The school is an academy and converted in 2011. Until last year it was a teaching school and is now the primary partner of the local teaching hub school. The school works with specialist hubs having a number of their own specialist teachers, including with a computing hub.

Innovation

CPD is paramount in our research-informed school and as soon as the pandemic hit, we made sure to read as much as we could around the topic of distance learning. Our school has always been a Microsoft school but we switched to becoming a Google school at the start of the pandemic because it felt much more tailored to a school environment. We started to work with the EdTeach demonstrator school during the first lockdown in March 20, which helped us to understand what was possible; formulate our vision as a Google School;  decide what we wanted to achieve and how we were going to achieve it. For us, CPD was key. Staff had to learn on the job but we supported them with CPD that was aimed at developing their confidence in using IT in their teaching.

The importance of a broad and balanced curriculum

As part of our core offer of distance learning, EYFS had three hours of remote learning. Key Stages 1 and 2 had three hours of live streaming plus another three hours of blended learning, which combined independent learning and live streaming. So, all in all, we offered six hours of distance learning.

It was important to us that it was not only our core subjects being streamed. So, although they were streamed in those core three hours in the morning, we also ensured that some of our foundation subjects were streamed as well. We also continued with our regular timetable to ensure that children were engaging in a broad and balanced curriculum. For example, whenever PE was scheduled in our regular timetable, we would ensure that this was also the focus of streamed lessons. Parental feedback on these streamed lessons was really positive as it gave them and their children the opportunity to ask questions, which supported children’s learning. 

We also know that for many children it is not necessarily the core subjects that they are most excited about, so we wanted to make sure that all subjects were represented and considered as equally important. We worked closely with subject specialists to make sure that those subjects were taught appropriately online. Often this involved working with equipment that students had in their households and that could replace, for example, the musical instruments that they would normally have access to in school. As a school with a strong focus on music, the continuation and progression of learning and muiscality was really  important to us and we worked a lot on musical theory so that children learned how to read music. We also used online tools that allowed children to write their own music.

The important role of support staff

Each teacher was supported by a teaching assistant (TA) during live teaching, and TAs were responsible for monitoring the chat so as not to interrupt the flow of live teaching, to troubleshoot problems and to pick up questions, on which  the teachers could focus. At a later stage, TAs were able to work with smaller groups of children in breakout groups, which really supported students’ learning. 

The advantage of being a two-form entry school was that one teacher could provide input to all 60 children at the start of the lesson and we could then break them up into smaller, more targeted groups with the help of TAs. This really helped us to provide personalised support rather than a ‘blanket approach’.

Office staff also played a crucial role in behaviour management and student support. If ever students were disrupting a lesson or had difficulties with the technology, teachers would send a message to office staff who could pick up the phone and call children’s caregivers immediately so that they could address the issue. They were also crucial in calling home straight away when students were not online at the expected time to alleviate any safeguarding concerns. 

A blended approach in the Early Years

Particularly for Early Years, blended approaches were very important as students could not be expeceted to sit in front of a screen for three hours. So teachers would give students bitesize instructions such as, for example, finding an object starting with a particular letter in their house and then students went off to find that object. This meant that students were not spending too much time in front of a screen and were actively engaged in their learning, making it memorable.

Supporting student motivation and engagement

We found that headphones really helped children to concentrate on the lesson and not be distracted by what was going on around them. We also provided engaging and  fun online learning and recall through quizzes and interactive games and we made sure that they occurred at different times of the day to keep children on their toes. We also set the attendance register in a way, so that it would register students’ attendance and engagement during the lesson. This meant that students could not simply join a lesson and then leave, but had to engage. Working on live Google documents also allowed us to provide live feedback during the lesson and see in an instant,  how children were getting on with their work. We also had an expectation that students would always have their cameras on. Sharing students’ successes in newsletters and with caregivers was also important in keeping children engaged. We also asked children to write a letter to somebody to whom they were gratefulduring lockdown –  a few children wrote to the local hospital and their letters were put up in the staff room there. A parent working in that hospital later told us how much these letters had meant to the staff and colleagues, and this really showed us that school is so much more than just a place for academic learning.

Another important aspect of our distance learning provision was to provide online learning from day one and to forego paper-based workpacks. This meant that families had to engage with the distance learning offer even if previously they may have been reluctant to do so, which worked well for the vast majority of families.

Parent-teacher communication

We decided to give out staff’s school email addresses to parents, which was brave but improved communication immensely as they were able to email us directly whenever they were experiencing a problem. As a result, our relationships with parents really improved, as parents appreciated that direct communication. We also provided support on our website for parents on how to use Google classrooms; guidance on how to trouble-shoot and expectations for online learning. We offered parents the opportunity to buy a Chromebook via the school at a much lower price and offered short-term loans to help with financing.

Children’s digital literacy

We believe that our computing curriculum really helps to prepare our students for with a range of life-skills as we always make sure to cover a range of different tools when we teach them a new skill. This means that they get used to different interfaces rather than just getting to know one specific piece of software. We teach typing skills and how to sit at a computer in Year 1, so we were confident that they could engage with their online learning from the very start.

Feedback and assessment

We used a number of different approaches for feedback and assessment. During live teaching, we would stay on the call whilst students went away to work independently, so that students who were struggling could ‘come and see us’ as they would in class and talk through their work with us. We also used Mote for verbal feedback, which allowed us to comment straight on to students’ work and for them to respond verbally as well. We also continued to use our behaviour system which rewards students for achievements in different categories, such as collaboration or character. We also used Nearpod, which provides interactive activities for children and breaks down their results for the teacher, so it provided us with feedback on their understanding and they enjoyed the process as it did not feel like a test. We then grouped children according to their results but made sure that we did not always put the same children in the same groups so that it was not obvious to children how they had been grouped.

Supporting students’ wellbeing

We had about 155 children in school as part of our provision for key worker children and vulnerable students butdecided that they were going to be taught in exactly the same way as their peers who were learning from home. This meant that they were also taught via Chromebooks using headphones. This way, all children received exactly the same provision. We also created opportunities for students to interact with each other online during break time or lunch time. We still monitored those groups but it was important to us that children could engage socially with their classmates, without being in physical proximity and risking transmission of COVID. 

Supporting students’ with SEND

We used screen readers, and were able to change background colours and font size to support children who are visually impaired, and we continue to offer this support to students with SEND. 

Going forward

We feel that this period of distance learning has really pushed education twenty years forward and forced us to catch up with the private sector. As a school, we have decided to purchase Chromebooks for each classroom, so that every child now has pencil, paper and a Chromebook to use as part of their core learning offer. We really want to prepare children for the world in which they live, and whilst this does not mean that we are putting less emphasis on equally important, traditional forms of learning such as handwriting, we have expanded our core offer.

The fact that parents now have our email addresses helps enormously with teacher-parent communication, as parents can now let us know directly whenever they need to get in touch with us, even if the school is closed.

We continue to give children the opportunity to draft texts on Chromebooks and to provide feedback directly on their work before they improve their work and add it to their exercise books. This really allows us to see their progress and enables children to continue working at home. Parents also really appreciate being able to see their children’s work on the learning platform.

We have started to explore additional software  to support our day-to-day teaching, for example Wakelet or Quizlet, which informs our assessment for learning.

We also continue to hold some of our parents’ evenings online as it allows both parents to be present without needing to arrange childcare have had really positive feedback from parents.. This has also made a big difference to staff workload, time-keeping and scheduling.

We are now also recording our classrooms and a brief welcome video of ourselves to help transition from one year group to another, as we have seen that this really helps those children who are anxious about moving to a new year group and a new teacher. 

We also maintain sessions of mindfulness and face-to-face as well as online assemblies. 

Recommendations

  • Have a look at the various programmes and software that are out there and try them out from a child’s perspective to make sure you choose the one that is most intuitive.
  • Allocate collaborative time for staff to share their learning. CPD is important but it is equally important for members of staff to be able to share with their colleagues how they have applied the learning in their context.
  • Make sure that your distance learning offer does not only focus on core subjects but offers a broad and balanced curriculum. 
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