Getting distance learning right

‘I just wanted to let you know the online learning package has been fantastic, engaging and structured. The boys have enjoyed it very much and the teachers have impressed with their ability to transfer their skills, energy and enthusiasm during their virtual teaching.’ 

When we threw open our gates again last June at the end of the first lockdown, we were delighted to have the children back where they belonged. Although we had been able to move swiftly at short notice to school online, we hoped we had seen an end to distance learning. We hoped, but we assumed nothing. While the familiar routine of the Autumn Term carried on, behind the scenes we were planning against possible further school closures, assessing what had worked well the first time, and identifying where we could improve. When the decision to close came, we were ready to swing straight back into our new and fully developed distance-learning programme.   

In a nutshell, this is what distance learning looks like for our pupils: 

  • A full live timetable from 8.40am until 3.30pm, Monday to Friday
  • A full curriculum: Maths, English, Science, Topic-based studies, Global Citizenship, French, Music, PE and Art 
  • Contact with the child’s form tutor at the beginning and end of the school day 
  • All assignments marked and returned via Teams, with individual feedback
  • Opportunities and experiences beyond the curriculum

In essence, as near as we can possibly make it to in-school learning, but in a virtual classroom and with a fantastic army of parent teaching assistants. 

Distance learning puts a particular pressure on families and teachers alike. We would love to be able to lift the burden fully off our parents, but with primary-aged children, varying levels of involvement are inevitable. So with the needs of the parents as well as the children in mind, we made adjustments to help those struggling to support learning and work from home.  

To have a happy child at a time like this just goes to show how amazing and special the staff at Cricklade are. She is full of energy, laughing a lot, and can’t wait to log on to her next session! 

‘Having live lessons has definitely made a difference,’ reports a parent. ‘I’m keeping an eye, and I might help a bit with the work, but it’s much easier. It is the interaction that is so great. The teachers are able to nominate children to answer questions. It means I don’t have to be so involved.’ 

The full timetable has kept everyone busy. We have Year 5 comparing Shakespearean and contemporary language, writing letters and then text messages from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth. Year 4 pupils have been working on units, making metre lengths from scrap paper, walking exactly one kilometre, weighing and measuring items at home. Learning to tell the time in Reception has been fun, but somewhat eclipsed by the Dough Disco! A Year 6 discursive essay challenged our oldest pupils to decide whether it was preferable to live in an urban or rural environment. So much to get stuck into. 

Our subject experts are still injecting their enthusiasm and specialist knowledge into learning. As one parent said, ‘It can be hard to get variety into the day, so having that rotation of teachers has really helped keep them interested.’ Head of Science, Palak Heywood, had Year 3 proving the passage of water up through the stem of a plant by observing what happened to a white flower placed in a solution of water and food dye. Head of Art, Nicky Brookes, has had children working on a STEAM project, planning, designing and building their own shoes. Head of Sport, Tom Davies, gets a special mention. His weekly sporting challenges during the first lockdown generated a huge response on social media as well as participation from children and parents throughout the school. He is now bringing the same energy to his online PE classes.  

‘My children were sick of me making them do Joe Wickes. But they absolutely love Mr Davies’ PE classes, which is especially important now when it’s cold outside.’ Not really a surprise, when activities include Spiderman push-ups, snow angels and fast-sit kicks. 

The additional experiences we offer our children haven’t been dropped either. Years 3 and 4 still had their session with Guide Dogs for the Blind, albeit virtually, and used it to inspire poster design. And while there are some things we can’t do, we are maintaining everything we can, including weekly celebration assemblies with Head, Guy Barrett, where each class teacher names their Star of the Week and awards postcards to any children who have produced outstanding work. 

I have to say that what you are doing during this pandemic has surpassed everything I could have imagined!

Making a virtue of a necessity, our staff have been quick to see opportunities in home learning. For their History topic on the pivotal year of 1066, Year 1 children were encouraged to look out of their windows, and try to imagine what they might have seen back in the days of William I. Reception children have been enjoying introducing their pets to the class and had a ferret workshop from their Teaching Assistant. ‘We wouldn’t be able to do this at school,’ points out Reception Teacher, Jenna Towers. Year 4 children considered the emotions that they experienced on hearing the news of another lockdown and used them to inspire poetry. 

There are other skills to learn, too. No surprise that the children are very tech savvy these days. Even the youngest are able to mute and unmute themselves. ‘My seven year old can access his timetable,’ says a parent, ‘and is getting very organised around making sure he has everything he needs for a lesson.’ Increased patience has been mentioned, particularly when a family struggles with poor WiFi and multiple users! 

It was wonderful when the positive feedback came in swiftly. ‘Firstly, congratulations on today, I am sure it has been a stress for you and all the staff. G enjoyed and benefited from it. Well done.’ 

We are particularly happy that we have been successful in engaging our Reception children, even though learning via a screen is so alien to their normal experience here.  

‘Thank you so much for your hard work. E is very engaged with his learning.’ 

Although as Mrs Towers points out, ‘The children enjoy seeing the interactions between me and my family. They are getting to see that I don’t live at school and that I am just a ‘normal’ human being!’ 

Of course, we look forward eagerly to the time when everything is back to normal, but with the support of the whole school community, and with particular thanks to our fabulous parents, we are grateful that we have been able to maintain the core of what makes an education at Cricklade Manor so special. 

Thank you for such a fantastic week. She has loved the ‘challenges’ and as a teacher I know how much extra work it is to teach online. You are amazing!