Coronavirus: Supporting families and pupils learning from home

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools face a raft of new challenges as they seek to support the home education of their students. Matt Bromley offers his reflections on what teachers and schools can do to ensure learning continues as much as possible during the coronavirus emergency

This article is about how, during the coronavirus crisis, schools can continue to teach some form of curriculum to all their pupils, some of whom will indeed be at home, but others will continue to attend school for the time being. We need to consider the following:

  • What will education look like for the children of key workers who will continue to attend school.
  • What will education look like for the most vulnerable learners – pupils with Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), and those who have social workers who will also be in school?
  • What will education look like for other vulnerable learners – those with SEND who do not qualify for EHCPs and those on the fringes of agency support who we, as teachers, know are at risk but who are not officially in receipt of specialist support, and those eligible for free school meals – who will, in all likeliness, be denied access to school for a prolonged period of time and yet may need pastoral support as well as access to learning? These pupils may also need differentiated learning materials and may struggle to access our online learning platforms. What will this look like in practice? How will we ensure their disadvantage isn’t doubled?
  • What will education look like for all other pupils who will now study at home? Will we provide physical learning packs or access to online learning, and will online learning include an element of teaching via video or will we rely on simply setting work via learning platforms.

In this article, I focus mainly on the pupils who will be learning from home. (I focus on the pupils still attending school in my article here).

First, a warning: this article will pose more questions than answers because each school must make their own decisions about what they think is right for their pupils and their contexts. But in asking some key questions, I hope to help you navigate this unprecedented crisis.

What should schools do now?

Schools need to take some quick decisions on how to staff lessons in the short-term for those pupils who are still attending, particularly if staying open over the Easter break as has been requested by the government.

They also need to consider how they will keep their site open and safe – this will involve a core team of support staff as well as teachers. How will all these staff be selected so that it is fair and how will they be kept safe? If they have children, will they be looked after in school?

Elsewhere, what will teachers who work from home do and how will they be kept in the loop and supported?

The government has said it will ensure schools are supported financially so we can assume any additional costs incurred as a result of the coronavirus will be paid for centrally after the dust settles. This might include making extra payments, perhaps even overtime, to those expected to work the Easter holiday.

There will be longer term decisions to take over the coming weeks but, right now, schools need to do their best to help pupils continue with meaningful education from Monday. So, what might we consider?

How will schools ensure a continuation of learning?

I appreciate that parents and carers will be taking on a much more important role in their children’s education as they home educate, but the role of schools continues too. Many schools have already been working hard to produce learning packs and to build online platforms, but these will need to be kept under constant review to ensure they are working – and we are likely to need to provide work for months, not weeks. You may wish to ask yourselves the following questions:

What form should the curriculum take?

What should the balance be between parent-led education and teacher/school input? Will work be sent home in paper form? If so, how much work will be sent each time and how often? How will work be returned so it can be marked? Does it need to be marked every time or even at all?

What role are parents expected to play in helping their children complete this work? Will the work be related to class learning or will it consist of discrete projects? Will it link every time to the curriculum? Will it be meaningful and help pupils to make progress or just “busy work”?

Will work be made available online? If so, will it be entirely online or a mixture of online and offline work? How will you identify those pupils who do not have internet access or who cannot afford to use the internet for long periods? What of those who do not have a device or a good enough device to access the materials? Will some pupils be disadvantaged by their lack of digital literacy skills?

Will online learning be created entirely by your school, or will you use external platforms such as BBC Bitesize, or indeed a combination of both? There has been a wealth of free resources and services offered in light of the crisis..

What will be the nature of curriculum content?

Will your learning packs or online platforms require pupils to process new information, perhaps in the form of flipped or blended learning? Or will it provide opportunities for pupils to practise prior learning? Or indeed both?

If it will present pupils with new information, how will ensure they understand it? How will you mitigate the risk they will encounter misleading or inaccurate information if conducting research for a project, say, and do not know how to spot fake news? How will you counter the problem of some pupils simply not understanding new information because you are not there to assess and diagnose their progress?

Here, it may be worth reflecting on what the evidence says about homework. The Education Endowment Foundation’s meta-analyses show that the impact of homework, on average, is five months’ additional progress. However, beneath this average there is a wide variation in potential impact, suggesting that how homework is set is likely to be very important (EEF, 2018).

There is some evidence that homework is most effective when used as a short and focused intervention (e.g. in the form of a project or specific target connected with a particular element of learning) with some exceptional studies showing up to eight additional months’ positive impact on attainment. Benefits are likely to be more modest, up to two to three months’ progress on average, if homework is more routinely set (e.g. learning vocabulary or completing practice tasks in mathematics every day).

Evidence also suggests that how homework relates to learning during normal school time is important. In the most effective examples, homework was an integral part of learning, rather than an add-on. To maximise impact, the EEF says it is also important that pupils are provided with high quality feedback on their work.

Some studies indicate that there may be an optimum amount of homework of between one and two hours per school day (slightly longer for older pupils), with effects diminishing as the time that pupils spend on homework increases.

Professor John Hattie (2008), meanwhile, says that the effect of homework on pupil outcomes is 0.26 overall but is 0.15 at primary and 0.64 at secondary. Therefore, it is small at primary but large at secondary.

He also goes into some detail about the kinds of homework that work best. The highest effects, he says, are associated with practice and rehearsal tasks. And short, frequent homework tasks that are closely monitored by the teacher have the most impact on pupil progress.

The optimal time per-night for pupils to spend on homework also varies by age; the older the pupil, the more time they should spend on homework. This is an imperfect science but, roughly, I would argue that the following is a good guide: pupils in the primary phase should do no more than about 20 minutes a night, pupils in key stage 3 should do about 40 minutes, pupils in key stage 4 should do about 60 minutes, and pupils in key stage 5 should do about 90 minutes a night.

Also worth reading is John Dabell's round-up of the research on effective homework, published in SecEd last year (Dabell, 2019). MacBeath and Turner (1990), meanwhile, suggest that homework should:

  • Be clearly related to on-going classroom work.
  • Be varied.
  • Be manageable.
  • Be challenging but not too difficult.
  • Allow for individual initiative and creativity.
  • Promote self-confidence and understanding.
  • Culminate with recognition or reward for work done.
  • Be offer guidance and support.

So, what might be the implication of this for our pupils working from home? I would suggest the most effective type of remote learning to set is retrieval practice but, of course, we cannot expect pupils to only practise prior learning between now and the summer, we must introduce new information to them at some point, so we may also need to consider the use of online teaching.

How can we teach online?

Teaching online is very different to standing in front of a class. I have only recently begun delivering webinars and it has taken me a few attempts to feel comfortable broadcasting to a large group of learners from my dining room table.

A recent Teacher Tapp survey found that only 40 per cent of UK teachers would be able to broadcast a lesson from home – whether they are limited by access to technology, their ability to use the technology, or their reticence and discomfort with teaching online is unclear, but there is evidently a training need to address here.

I have learnt that online teaching works best when you use it as means of giving explanations – didactic teaching – rather than trying to facilitate an interactive lesson. The explanations should be delivered in short chunks, with longer pauses for punctuation than you would ordinarily think to give when face-to-face with pupils.

Online teaching also works best when you complement the webcam video of you talking with slides and other materials which you share via your screen. Some platforms allow you to broadcast a virtual whiteboard which you may find useful for modelling work.

Time should be given for pupils to process what you have said and to ask any questions or seek clarifications. This can be done via a “chatroom” facility or by students using video-conferencing to speak to you.

But such interactions are fraught with difficulty, not least safeguarding concerns if other pupils are able to screenshot images of their peers. So, I would suggest you keep it simple and deliver short lecture-style teacher explanations which are then followed by online learning materials and tasks.

One further point on online teaching: it may be possible to broadcast a video of a teacher who is delivering a lesson in school for the children of key workers and our most vulnerable learners. This would ensure some consistency in terms of the educational experience of pupils in and out of school, and teachers may find it more comfortable to be videoed in their natural habitat, so to speak, rather than staring at the blinking eye of a webcam.

And of course, teacher explanation videos do not have to be broadcast live –prerecorded videos could also prove useful.

How much work should we set?

A key question to consider is how much work do we set pupils to do at home and how much time can we reasonably expect them to work each day? I would suggest pupils cannot be expected to keep to normal school hours, and we will need to show some leniency because some families will struggle to support their children’s learning and may not feel able to direct their child to study. Some children may not have a home environment conducive to learning, either.

A ballpark figure, inspired by the above research on effective homework, may be that we anticipate pupils working for two to three hours a day.

We should keep in mind the amount of time pupils are likely to study each day when and if we set deadlines for work to be completed and returned for marking. We want to challenge them but we don’t want to set them up for failure.

Should we make remote learning voluntary or mandatory?

This is a tricky one. Pupils still need to learn, and they should be accessing learning packs or online platforms and engaging with you. We cannot allow them to waste several months of essential education time. To ensure pupils engage, it may be necessary for teachers and leaders to make regular contact with parents/carers in order to articulate the importance of their children working from home and to help them do so.

However, in the short-term, this may not be feasible and so some leniency may be needed. As the situation unfolds and we know more about the length of time pupils will be kept off school and about how schools will work together to provide shared services, we may get more of a steer on the legality of pupils being in education.

If we use online teaching, we may also need to consider whether we monitor and record attendance at these sessions.

Should we mark work completed at home?

If the work is important and is to be taken seriously by pupils and their parents, then some of it, at some stage, should be assessed and feedback given. Again, it is too soon to know what this marking and feedback will look like and how often it should be done. But some online platforms automatically assess and give feedback and most online services allow pupils to submit work electronically.

In the case of learning packs, you may need to consider the logistics of pupils returning work to school.

If all else fails...

The one form of remote learning we know with certainty is effective is reading books! So, if nothing else, we should encourage pupils to read, read, read.

We might consider providing access to ebooks, and many library services provide free ebooks so we could work with them to help parents sign their children up if they are not already members, or sending books home from the school library, and perhaps even giving book vouchers to disadvantaged pupils.

Reading records and tasks based on pupils’ reading can be used to encourage this activity and to allow pupils to reflect on their reading.

Finally...

School leaders need to be mindful of the impact of remote learning on their staff’s workload and wellbeing. This is undoubtedly – and unavoidably – a stressful time for us all. But we must do all we can to limit the pressures that are exerted on our teachers. For example, can we ask teachers to repurpose existing learning materials for remote learning rather than creating materials from scratch? Can we help teachers to work collaboratively to produce materials so that the overall workload is reduced? Can schools work together rather than in isolation?

  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He works as a consultant, speaker, and trainer. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk

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