Cassie Buchanan, Headteacher of Charles Dickens Research School and new CEO of Charter Schools Education Trust, had a great virtual school for Charles Dickens up and running as soon as schools closed. Here she shares more about what they did and why, top tips and lessons learnt
What works well
We had done lots of work on our curriculum for our school improvement and so were ready to go on each subject, and had specialists on each subject, and all that moved across very smoothly to our digital learning platform. That clear, strong structure allowed us to focus on going online.
We don’t have a huge background in tech but I do have an agile team who adapt really quickly so I was able to delegate a lot including to our research director, who focused on what works, an inhouse graphics teacher who created a lot of animation, people who took care of the tech, as well as specialist teachers so we didn’t have people trying to do everything.
We’re also good a learning from each other. In the beginning everyone was watching everyone else's lessons to understand what works.
We knew from our communications that most parents accessed things on mobile phones so we made everything mobile-friendly and password free so barriers to access were removed. We offer a blend of online and offline learning and know many parents don’t have confidence in their teaching, which is fair enough, so that led to modelled lessons and work which children can self-manage.
Relationships are important so children feel connected to their teacher, so there’s a daily lesson where teachers have virtual conversations, about wildlife they’ve seen or whatever.
We use Air Table which allows everyone to do their work and then drop it in one place and we have outsourced to one (non-teaching) person to build the webpage and keep it updated. We use Screencastify for teachers to record lessons, it’s free and works on all types of computer. And we use YouTube to post our videos, as that’s what children are used to. We put them up as unlisted so children don’t get adverts for inappropriate content but only see our videos, so we have kept that safeguarding side to the fore. Teachers prerecord videos because they recognise parents are working flexibly and need to be able to manage their day; there is no point in the day when we teach live and the evidence shows that doesn’t matter.
What we’ve learnt and adapted
We are learning at speed about technology and what works, and gave teachers freedom to figure that out. One thing we tweaked was having multiple children in a household accessing different lessons so we now have whole school lessons for art, music and dance so its less stressful as parents don’t have to do lots of different things there. We invested in art materials and sent them home with the children and that’s been good. We’ll make savings elsewhere.
Another barrier is people having to print stuff out so we have textbooklets which the children have to fill in (and there are printouts incase they lose them).
Wellbeing has become more important so we have more educational courses for students to access in their home.
There’s ongoing spotting of gaps and tweaking to ensure what we are doing is sustainable, and enough for children, but not too much. Parents fed back they would like a bit of direction on what to do each day so when to do English and Maths and so on. For example Wednesday can be a bit bleurgh so that’s when we do dance and when energy levels are dropping by Friday there is yoga and wellbeing. So we’re timetabling for the rhythm of the family home.
We’re not passing on loads of websites as that can be a bit overwhelming for parents, so only BBC Bitesize.
How we monitor and support those who need more help
We track responses to emails and work submitted, and we basically RAG-rated children based on that kind of feedback: Green if they are sending work in regularly; Amber if we only hear infrequently from them or their parents; and Red if not heard from them at all. We send out nudging emails to the amber ones “send us your work, we miss you”; and the red ones we phone in school and say, “How are things, do you need any help?” Some parents say they are doing things but just not going to the website or sending work in.
Now on the virtual school website the focus is on sharing children’s work for a very public well done, so our message to parents is “share, share’ share”.
Plans for the future
We are thinking long-term and considering what bits we sustain when we’re back at school. We see gaps not being filled by BBC Bitesize and Oak National Academy and we feel long term we would like to focus on an online offer of music and wellbeing. We’re also interested in MFL as what’s out there isn’t great.
We can also offer CPD for teachers and school leaders so they can learn the tech and practicalities to help them develop their own thing.
Tips for other schools
I think tech can feel daunting but things have moved on such a lot that creating videos and uploading presentations are far more user-friendly. So I’d encourage people to have a go.
Don’t be afraid to take things from other schools and change or replicate them.
Contact: I’m happy for people to contact me at the school or on Twitter. We’re all up for learning and sharing.
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