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Remote education: what we’ve learnt so far

As parents hunker down for at least another month with kids at home, we talk to the Headmaster at Reigate St Mary's to find out what the past year has taught us about remote learning.

girl at home remote learning

With the Government’s announcement that schools are not expected to fully reopen until at least early March, it looks like remote learning will be on the (kitchen) table for a little longer yet.

And while we’ve now become quite accustomed to remote learning and all that it entails (not that it makes the life juggle any easier!), when schools were forced to close their doors to most of their pupils in March last year and move lessons online, there was a lot to learn for everyone: schools, pupils and parents.

Surrey prep school, Reigate St Mary’s – which has been shortlisted for Independent Prep School of the Year in recognition of its excellence in education and particularly its outstanding integration of technology – was unsurprisingly quick to adapt. We spoke to Marcus Culverwell, the RMS Headmaster about his school’s successes and the silver linings of the situation.

Reigate St Mary’s was quick to switch to a remote learning programme – no easy task given the young age of pupils. How did you go about it?

Lockdown brought with it an unprecedented challenge for schools with the need to move children’s entire learning online in a very short space of time. At Reigate St Mary’s the curriculum has always been carefully tailored to the needs of our children and is the cornerstone of the excellent academic outcomes we achieve year on year. However, from March 23, along with all other schools in the country, we were thrown into a totally new world of remote teaching and learning.

As lockdown took effect, we looked at the current progression of each individual year group, their learning to date and the plans in place for the remainder of the year. We remodelled the existing curriculum, to ensure that learning could continue remotely in the same way it would have done, had the children been in school. 

To deliver the curriculums, we used the Firefly platform for our Year 1 to Year 6 children and staff underwent thorough training so they were proficient with the software. For early Years, we continued to use the Tapestry platform which was familiar to staff and parents.

Within a very short space of time, we were up and running, delivering a full curriculum and maintaining an accelerated pace of learning, which would not have been possible had we implemented a one size fits all approach.

homeschooling, child learning at home

How do you engage very young children using an online platform? Surely you’d need parents or another adult to help at home.

For our youngest children (5 and under), teachers recorded stories and exciting activity introductions which were delivered via our existing Tapestry platform. The Early Years curriculum is all about facilitating the environment so the children can explore areas of learning, so yes, an adult did need to be on hand to take the learning on after the teacher’s initial introduction. The activities we set were practical and developmentally appropriate and we ensured the materials we recommended the parents used were ones they had at home, such as toy cars and leaves for counting and chalk on the patio for mark making. There was a focus on the characteristics of effective learning (playing and exploring; active learning; creating and thinking critically) and we gave parents lots of ideas including simple things like getting their child to pour their own drink or peg washing on a line. And, to support parents in becoming early year’s practitioners overnight, we ran Q&A sessions and were in contact weekly.

How did you balance screen time with other screen-free activities?

Time away from a screen is always important and even more so during lockdown. Often it is whilst riding bikes, playing in the garden or being a bit bored that true creativity is fostered. We encouraged families to take a break where possible. It was lovely to see super art work and to hear about dens being built, wildlife being spotted and new outdoor skills learnt.

The children’s wellbeing is always our absolute priority and activities to support this were an integral part of the weekly curriculum. Form times via Microsoft Teams ensured that teachers and children could talk face-to-face. Recorded weekly assemblies, often featuring areas around the school grounds, helped to maintain a sense of cohesiveness and fun across the community.

children riding bikes

And how did you keep children motivated to learn?

At RSM we believe in ‘intrinsic motivation; this is the motivation that comes from within. It is the satisfaction gained from achieving individual learning goals. Feedback from teachers is an essential part of this and was a key feature of online learning during lockdown. Teachers reviewed every piece of work daily, and the Firefly platform facilitated excellent two-way personalised communication. The children particularly enjoyed leaving voice notes and using emoji’s.  As the weeks went by, the teachers were delighted with the standard of work the children were submitting, across the year groups. 

Were there any silver linings to lockdown learning?

In most situations in life it is not too difficult to find good in what appears to be so bad, and there were certainly a number of silver linings that became apparent during lockdown. At RSM we were delighted to see the rapid independence the children developed with their online learning and their application of information technology. Our children are preparing today for jobs which don’t yet exist. The enormous shifts in technology and globalization that are expected to transform the workplace, as we roll on through the 21st century, have already begun. The children’s ability to adapt and to apply learning, (especially IT applications), in an array of different areas and to have resilience under pressure could not be more valuable.  Their responsiveness to new technology during lockdown is a marvellous indicator of this vital adaptability. A real silver lining indeed.

Is there anything you’d do differently next time?

From the feedback we received from our pupils, staff and parents, we feel that we did the best job we could in the circumstances.  If there is a next time we are very well prepared to switch seamlessly to on-line learning, but very much hope this won’t be necessary.

Reigate St Mary’s is an independent co-ed and non-selective day school in the heart of Reigate, taking pupils from age 2-11. From September 2021, the school is introducing an additional class in Year 3.

Read our full school review here.

Reigate St Mary’s School, Chart Lane, Reigate, Surrey, RH2 7RN. Tel: 01737 244880.

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