An Education for Life in Lockdown – living the virtual experience

For eight years our pupils have benefitted from having an iPad as part of their school equipment and for five of these years, we have been recognised as an Apple Distinguished School in acknowledgement of the way we have embedded this technology into our teaching and learning to enhance and develop the ways our pupils experience school.

iPad Enabled
During this time we have been proud of the innovations that the iPad has facilitated both directly and indirectly, allowing us to do things in classrooms we would not have been able to do without them, but also setting us off on a journey to constantly strive to deliver new and engaging ways to learn, and to design a curriculum that speaks to the values and needs of an ever-evolving world beyond school.

Digital Inquiry for Sixth Form
We have been recognised as an EdTech 50 school, in part for our Digital Inquiry course, which runs in the Sixth Form. This course requires pupils to work collaboratively on a project of their choosing, which they believe will solve a real-life problem. The course has specific taught modules in things like ethics, design thinking, presentation skills and project management, alongside short courses in creativity and entrepreneurship as well as a range of digital skills which may be required to complete the project.

Innovation Centre
We have won a TES ‘best use of technology’ award for our Innovation Centre, which is a place that allows pupils to work on projects, free from the constraints of the timetable and in any area that interests them, meaning that we have pupils teaching each other how to code in a range of languages, publishing games and apps to the App Store, designing virtual reality experiences and in one example, building a full-size arcade machine, to play a game one of the group had written.

Virtual School Mindset
This context perhaps explains our current situation of delivering a full curriculum, alongside enrichment and our co-curricular clubs all whilst being in ‘lockdown’. Our school never closed, we simply transitioned to a virtual school using the mindset, but also the skills, we have picked up over the years. We had the hardware – each pupil with an iPad, and the vast majority also with a stylus, but we also had years of training, shared good practise and a clear plan. We also have a school culture of innovation and optimism that encourages staff and pupils alike to see opportunity in change and challenge.

Before schools physically closed we ensured that every year group had an assembly explaining what would happen during virtual school. The only new technology we would be introducing was Google Meet, and this would be tested with everyone during class, and was in fact already being used with pupils who were shielding or self-isolating. All our other platforms would remain the same, just with an increased emphasis on ensuring workflows were clear and that everyone was clear about these processes.

Innovation Boost
The result of ‘lockdown’ is that in many ways we have never been more innovative. At a foundational level we are proud of how ‘normal’ the school day feels, whilst acknowledging that it is also completely different! In surveys conducting after a week and then a month of virtual school, our pupils report that things are going extremely well. 70% believe that they are being set work that represents a variety of different types of task. Similarly over two-thirds of staff and pupils believe that their learning (or teaching) has progressed at the same rate as in physical school. In a time of such isolation, perhaps the statistic to be most proud of is that 76% of pupils feel that they are getting enough teacher contact time. Given the balancing act so many staff are performing, looking after children or loved ones of their own and delivering an outstanding education, this is a very significant achievement.

Uplifting Online INSET
98% of staff reported that they felt well prepared for virtual school and this was exemplified by an incredibly uplifting staff INSET session in March where a number of staff shared some of the things they had done to engage pupils during this time. Whilst there is no doubt that we all miss the physical camaraderie of being in school together, it is also true that the situation has allowed us to try new things and leverage developed and new skills to make meaningful connections with our pupils, rather than just sending them work to do.

Creativity Boost
Over the last few weeks pupils have used Google Expeditions to create explanations of scientific processes or recreated key scenes in novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird, they have created stop-motion films using Lego and Play-Doh to explain new concepts, we have continued virtual collaborations with schools and partners in Spain and Italy to enhance language learning, but we have also learnt how to use the pupils’ home environment to their benefit, whether this is conducting virtual sports training, or running Family Philosophy Friday, where parents are invited to join their children’s philosophy lessons for debates and discussion. Simple things like recording, or pre-recording lessons also mean that pupils can, where appropriate, work at their own pace, adapting to their own circumstances, and that we can provide continuity for our overseas pupils around the world, irrespective of time differences.

Technology has enabled us to keep the familiarity of classes gathering together to learn on shared endeavours, a key part of the learning experience for our pupils, but it has also allowed us to explore new avenues and ideas that can sometimes get lost in the usual day to day life of a busy school. We do not talk of remote learning – we talk of virtual schooling in which technology is playing the key role of connecting people socially and has enabled us to create a powerful and supportive virtual community.

Supporting Wellbeing
And through all of this, we have continued to ensure that pastoral care is delivered to its usual high standards, whether that is through online counselling, virtual tutor group meetings twice a day, daily workouts from our PE department, or our Wednesday Wellbeing Webinar series, supporting parents and pupils with their questions and challenges. Through our outreach programmes, we have also been able to support universities and primary schools as they face these new challenges, able to offer know-how, but also reassurance that learning can still be varied, inspiring and impactful, with the proviso that change is managed carefully and supportively, and that decisions about what to do and how to do it, are made for the long term, not simply to solve an immediate problem.

Bright Horizons
As we look to the horizon and imagine the return to traditional school, we will certainly be an even more digitally literate community, but also one which will not ask what we can now stop doing, but one which will look at our curriculum through fresh eyes, aware of new opportunities that will continue to embellish and improve the experiences of our pupils for years to come.

Adam Webster
Deputy Head, Innovation and Digital, Caterham School

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