Will schools have learnt the lessons of lockdown?

    3 September 2020

    When choosing a school, parents now have something new to consider: what happens during a lockdown? One could be imposed again at any time — and, as we saw during the last one, there is a depressingly wide variety in the quality of education pupils receive at home. Some schools offered several hours of live tuition every day; others none at all. In general, private schools managed far better than state schools, opening up a pretty clear digital divide in education. It’s one that, as a parent, I saw for myself.

    I’m the proud father of three, the younger two at a state primary and the eldest in his first year at Hampton School in west London. I can’t complain about the primary school — pupils were referred to a national online school (the so-called Oak National Academy) and if this meant repeating topics they’d already learned, so be it. For children preparing for secondary entrance exams though, like my younger son, it was at bad timing. Eleven Plus results are unlikely to be revised upwards on appeal.

    I was among the luckier state school parents. We had a laptop and a room for each child and, I thought, what else can realistically be done? Especially as the world’s education system was being plunged into an entirely new world of home learning. But Hampton, an independent school where my 12-year-old son has just finished his first year, answered that question. It shifted instantly to digital learning, with a timetable and pace of teaching just as ambitious as it was pre-lockdown.

    Digital learning had been part of Hampton schooling from day one. There isn’t even a need for parents to supply laptops — each boy is given a school iPad, specially set up to make it a tool for learning (rather than, say, Minecraft). In normal times, pupils had already been given iPad quizzes, and if they missed a lesson due to music classes, they emailed teachers and asked what work they needed to catch up on; they have been trained to communicate digitally.

    Alex, my eldest, had around eight lessons a day before lockdown. During it, he had the same schedule,  each with a teacher on Microsoft Teams. For the first 20 minutes, the teacher would talk and the kids would listen. Pupils weren’t visible — to the teacher or to each other — but they’d be asked questions to make sure they were paying attention (‘Max, what do you think that means?’ — which makes Max less inclined to put his iPad under his pillow and watch Netflix). Homework was emailed to the teacher (a photo taken on the school iPad would do) and usually returned, marked, on the same day.

    Hampton even had virtual sports: pupils were asked to attempt a long jump, triple jump etc and compete by emailing their distance. The top five had to prove it with videos. There was even an online field trip: a geography teacher live-streamed a visit to a tributary of the Thames. The end-of-term reports contained no grade inflation. Hampton’s general approach is to do everything in its power and imagination for its pupils and the results are extraordinary. Teachers had the freedom to improvise. Quite a difference from the state school teachers told not to mark homework even when pupils returned to the classroom, because the exercise books might be carrying the virus.

    It is, of course, harder for state schools whose pupils might not all have laptops or internet access at home. If you give online lessons for those with the tech, what happens to pupils without it? We heard, during lockdown, about a family of six who had to share one iPhone for home-schooling; and their neighbours, who had to wait until the father came home from work and gave the kids his phone.

    And then, also, there were the private schools that fell short. I have friends who were hugely frustrated at what they weren’t getting for their money: emailed assignments or recorded videos would replace live lessons, with minimal marking. Similarly, some of the best state schools — especially grammars — adapted quickly and brilliantly. The question for a parent to ask a potential school, state or private, is how much live tuition the typical 17-year-old received each day in lockdown.

    But overall, the digital divide seems pretty big. One survey during lockdown showed 59 per cent of prep schools and 72 per cent of private secondaries provided live online lessons with teachers — compared with only 3 per cent of state primaries and 6 per cent of state secondaries. The tragedy is that, until lockdown, the attainment gap had been narrowing. Classrooms are the great leveller: the most powerful tools for education are a disciplined environment, attentive pupils, supportive families and brilliant teachers. But when lockdown strikes, tech is all.

    Or, rather, how you use tech. Some private schools are already seeking to do their bit to close the digital divide. Hampton has been giving free catch-up classes to children in nearby state schools. Eton is putting some lessons online with EtonX courses, accessible to all pupils studying for GCSEs and A-levels. This raises an interesting prospect: world-class private school classes being made available to everyone, perhaps the beginning of Open University for secondaries.

    Schools could compare notes on what worked in lockdown and what didn’t. The Department for Education would take years to come up with a model digital lockdown syllabus, but the innovation carried out by independent schools in the past few months will have created an invaluable body of evidence. All pupils, state and private, sit the same exams, so whatever methods worked for Eton could also work for comprehensives. And the cost is hardly prohibitive: Hampton used the sort of iPads that you can pick up for £150, which schools could cover. The software is free. If lessons are shared, and learned, then something good just might come out of this mess.