Portsmouth teachers and pupils back improvements in school remote learning in lockdown

Remote classes have dramatically improved during the second school closure, pupils and teachers have said.

By Neil Fatkin
Sunday, 14th February 2021, 3:10 pm

The first shock closure last year saw thousands of parents being faced with the daunting task of assisting with home learning hastily provided by schools.

Now in the thick of a second closure, things have moved on from resources just being emailed out.

As schools take a breather for half-term, teachers have revealed how online learning has become more sophisticated. The majority of schools in the city now have teachers leading live interactive daily lessons.

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English teacher Poppy Byrne delivering an online live lesson.

One remote learning pioneer is St Edmund’s Catholic School in Arundel Street. It was among the first state schools in the city to introduce live lessons.

Poppy Byrne, an English teacher at the Landport school, said: ‘In March we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing.

‘However we now have our own live lessons and have become so familiar with Microsoft Teams that it’s now just like second nature.

‘I feel like a real teacher again with my own groups and students.’

Year 6 Gomer Junior School pupil Alex Bijak working from home.

Teaching staff have tried to use technology to continue to deliver practical lessons where they can, including PE, design and technology and food technology.

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Food and nutrition teacher Scarlett Newton added: ‘I do a cook along session.

‘Pupils have made dishes such as pizza toast, scones and pancakes and they can send in photographs of what they have made.’

Headteachers, teachers, children and parents have been discussing what remote learning has been like during lockdown.

Over the summer the school bought webcams for all classrooms, trained staff in the use of Microsoft Teams - including how to create virtual breakout rooms for discussions - and invested in a new broadband system.

It mean the school was ‘ready to go’ if, as it was, a second school closure was called, said headteacher Simon Graham

Attendance varies between 80 to 95 per cent across state schools, Portsmouth City Council said.

St Edmund’s has seen attendance rates of around 95.6 to 96.2 per cent.

Year 11 Priory School pupil Samm Hart, 16, has praised the school for its online learning but is looking forward to a return to face to face teaching.

It’s not just the teachers who are happy with lockdown learning life.

Pupils have welcomed the chance to see classmates while learning, rather than being on their own.

Year 11 pupil Lila Clemas, 16, said the change in environment has made it easy to take part in class.

Lila said: ‘I’ve found it easier to contribute in online lessons.

‘I can be quite nervous in class where it feels like there’s more pressure to get things right.’

Fellow St Edmund’s Year 11 pupil Aneena Aneese, 16, said: ‘I’m really looking forward to face-to-face teaching again but having live lessons makes me feel like I’m part of the school again.’

Food and Nutrition teacher Scarlett Newton delivers a live online cook along lesson for children at home.

Amelie Lemas, 12, added: ‘Having your same lessons and seeing some of your teachers and friends gives a sense of normality and feels more like you are in school.’

Over at Priory School, in Fawcett Road, Southsea, teachers’ efforts have been welcomed by their students.

But there’s only so much they can do to stop classes becoming repetitive online, says 12-year-old Willow Lindstrom-Fabik.

‘During the first lockdown we used to just get work sent home but now we have live lessons which is much better,’ she said.

‘It helps to give me more structure but it can get a bit boring doing the online lessons all the time as you sometimes feel like you are constantly repeating the same day.’

Digital detox days are a feature of the timetable and pupils get the chance to do something offline - reading a new book or going geocaching.

Priory School English teacher Olivia Stitt said it was ‘incredible’ to see the changes from the first lockdown.

But she added: ‘Ultimately, the hardest thing has been not physically seeing our students every day.

‘It can be a struggle. The constant “Miss, you’re lagging”, “you’ve frozen” and “I can’t hear you”.

‘But, just as we would do in class, we learn from it, we adapt our lessons and we try again tomorrow.

‘The students’ enthusiasm and engagement makes it all worthwhile.’

Far more pupils, as the children of key workers, are still heading into classrooms than compared to last March’s lockdown.

Some 23,895 children were in schools in Hampshire in mid-January, and 4,829 were in Portsmouth classrooms.

As part of the Gosport and Fareham Multi-Academy Trust, Gomer and Rowner Junior Schools have taken all of their lessons live online.

It means that key worker children at both Gosport schools plug into a Chromebook and watch a live lesson - at the same time as their classmates at home.

Executive headteacher Georgina Mulhall said: ‘This ensures equity of learning for all pupils and as far as I’m aware we are unique in Hampshire in providing this fully digital learning.

‘I think this is one of the reasons why our numbers in school have been quite low as parents can be confident their children are not missing out.

‘This is important in ensuring it’s only those children who need to be in school who are attending.’

Mrs Mulhall said that ‘blended learning’ has been recognised as ‘a way forward’ in the future.

Online attendance across both primary schools has been around 92 per cent.

‘Frustrating digital divide’

ALL teachers are concerned about the worsened digital divide in lockdown - with some pupils struggling to access materials.

Youngsters without proper devices or data can be left using mobile phones, recognised as being far from ideal.

This is on top of a Portsmouth City Council concern that ‘engagement will drop as the lockdown continues, affecting disproportionately our most vulnerable learners’.

Priory School headteacher Stewart Vaughan said it has been ‘frustrating’ trying to get laptops and devices in place, especially with a ‘moral imperative’ to provide live lessons.

At his school, pupils have access to five live daily lessons, including a 30-minute Zoom session where tasks can be explained and children can ask questions and discuss topics.

Pupils then complete tasks submitted digitally for assessment.

Mr Vaughan said: ‘Last autumn we were promised 143 digital devices by the government for our disadvantaged children but only 24 arrived.

‘We were then told in December these devices had now been prioritised elsewhere, which was very frustrating.

The school eventually received the remaining 119 laptops three weeks ago and have added some of their own devices.

The headteacher added: ‘It has been incredibly difficult to ensure all pupils have the devices they need and with most schools now offering live lessons you have a situation of siblings trying to share.

‘We’ve now given out devices to 25 per cent of all our pupil households but there are still students who are struggling with data and trying to do work on mobile phones.’

The pandemic has highlighted a digital divide that has always existed, and Mr Vaughan is more determined than ever to bridge this gap.

He added: ‘Some children have been waiting 10 months and the digital divide of learning experience in that time is potentially horrendous.

‘We have an educational obligation to ensure we are never in this situation again and in the next three years our aim is to provide all our pupils with their own digital device.’

Priory School Year 11 pupil Samm Hart said: ‘I’m lucky because I have my own laptop but I know of some students who’ve been trying to access lessons on phones which isn’t practical.

St Edmund's Catholic School had to buy 40 laptops out of its own budget – money it has been told that ‘did not meet the criteria’ to be reimbursed.

What parents have said

A SURVEY carried out by Ofsted for Portsmouth schools suggests parents are generally happy with lockdown education.

Just one out of 40 households said they were unhappy with classes.

Parents have told The News of their support for schools doing their best.

Lucie Prior said: ‘I’ve four children at home and I have to say Highbury College, Miltoncross Academy and Wimborne Junior school have been brilliant in helping them whenever it’s needed.

‘They do a mixture of live lessons which are really good and I couldn’t give them more praise.’

Jade Ferai added: ‘Meon Junior School has been absolutely phenomenal.

‘Engaging home schooling, easily accessible and mental health and wellbeing of the whole school community at the heart of it all. They’re always asking for feedback to learn and improve. A great culture and wonderful staff.’

Fellow parent Liz Hodgson was also pleased with the provision on offer.

She said: ‘Ark Ayrton Primary Academy have been nothing short of amazing.

‘They’ve provided everything they’ve needed from pens and pencils to Chromebooks. Each Wednesday afternoon is Wellbeing Wednesday where the kids come off their devices and do home cooking and all the ingredients are provided by the school.’

There were however a small number of parents who expressed concerns.

Sarah Anderson said: ‘My son is in Year 10 and is not getting enough lessons online. There’s not enough interaction between students and teachers – some lessons are pre-recorded so if they need help they can’t ask.’

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Gomer Junior School's virtual school.
Priory School headteacher Stewart Vaughan is determined to bridge the digital divide highlighted during lockdown and hopes to provide all pupils with their own laptop or tablet within the next three years. Picture: Sarah Standing (131120-8625)