Remote learning in private schools - Hurstpierpoint College

Remote learning in private schools: rising to the challenge

The government’s decision to close private and maintained schools from 20 March was less of a surprise than the bold announcement that there would be no public examinations this summer for GCSE and A-level students. Nevertheless, school leaders were left with precious little time to plan for the lockdown.

At Hurst College, the priority was clear from the outset: to continue with, as far as was reasonably possible, the full provision of an outstanding all-round education for every child. A few weeks later, as we look back on the transformational journey that Hurst has been through, Dominic Mott (Head of Senior School) and Lloyd Dannatt (Deputy Head Academic) reflect on the key challenges for a private school and how they were overcome.

Digital hardware
With days to spare before the lockdown, one of the first priorities was to ensure that all staff and pupils had the equipment to teach or learn from home. An audit of digital devices redistributed laptops to those who needed them, and support staff were encouraged to take their office desktop computer home to enable remote working. Teachers were equipped with deskcams, whilst pupils’ devices were upgraded and checked to ensure that all were ready for a transition to the online world.

Centralised learning platform
Hurst were fortunate to be ahead of the game in the transition to a cloud-based network. Already 12 months into an 18-month project, it became clear that we needed to accelerate the final six months and condense this into just a few weeks to ensure we were truly cloud based. We store all of our teaching and learning resources in a bespoke SharePoint site called Hurst Online and this allows all teachers and pupils to access PowerPoints, worksheets, exam papers, mark schemes, online video tutorials, tests and revision materials from any device, anywhere in the world. In addition, by centralising the delivery of lessons through Microsoft Teams, with easy access to applications such as OneNote, we were able to make it as straightforward as possible to deliver live lessons whilst giving teachers freedom over how to teach.

Staff training
Upskilling staff and students fast was essential. Our Digital Learning Team took the lead in developing video tutorials and offering drop-in sessions for those who needed help, whilst weekly bulletins offered hints and tips to share best practice. Three months ago, staff were unfamiliar with Microsoft Teams, but over the recent period there has been a 970% increase in its use. Whole staff INSET sessions (delivered virtually where appropriate) showcased the very best examples of teaching, giving colleagues both confidence and inspiration to experiment in their own departments. Just as importantly, the standardisation of teaching resources (with Heads of Department co-ordinating the creation of high-quality, bespoke materials) allowed teachers to focus on delivery rather than continually reinvent the wheel in their own bunkers at home.

Structural adjustments
One of the most interesting challenges was to redesign the school day to adapt to the new way of working. Slightly shorter lessons and longer gaps between helped to reduce screen time; synchronising the Prep School and Senior School timetables allowed families with siblings in two different parts of the college to take lunch together; regular short tutorial slots allowed tutors time to offer one-on-one support to pupils; and some creative timetabling allowed for an earlier finish each day without losing any of our co-curricular provision. This last point has proven critical: by continuing to offer a programme of assemblies, sports sessions, choir and orchestra practices, musical rehearsals, activities sessions and CCF (to name but a few), the regular rhythms of Hurst life has continued – and the pupils have stayed fit, healthy and active. In the Pre-Prep and years 3/4 the new structure is focused on live delivery of numeracy and literacy in the mornings with a variety of creative and science-based tasks to be completed in the afternoon, alongside one-to-one reading with the class teacher – and then the whole class comes together again for story time to end each day.

Public exam year groups
The government’s shock announcement that public examinations would not take place left a vacuum that needed to be filled for the sake of the pupils. Some private and maintained schools cut ties immediately, effectively giving their pupils a six-month summer break without direction. Others, by contrast, insisted on pressing forward with mock examinations and assessments (although a number subsequently performed a U-turn). Hurst’s approach was designed to be more constructive: our Year 11 cohort made a start to their Sixth Form studies with a programme of three or four A-level subjects plus an EPQ; and the Upper Sixth were provided with a varied offering of pre-university courses, life skills, academic extension and social events. This has been met with true appreciation from students – who found a sense of purpose through this time – and parents.

Business considerations
The independent school sector will be hard hit by the economic effects of COVID-19, although it is too early to say how deep the impact will be. Suffice to say, we face some difficult decisions. Boarding fees were, of course, cut immediately, and all parents then received at least a further 20% discount off summer term day fees. The reduction was significantly higher for the younger year groups as well as the Upper Sixth. Bucking the trend across the private school sector, we wanted to ensure that our fee structure reflected the educational provision on offer and also recognised the financial challenges faced by parents. Additionally, a hardship fund was created to assist those families requiring bursarial support – and, at the same time, a separate hardship fund for staff was introduced which was financed through a voluntary salary sacrifice made by the Headmaster and the SLT to help shield colleagues at the lower end of the pay scale. Much thought also went into deciding which staff to furlough – we were very clear that we would not compromise our educational provision. As such, all teachers continued to work at full tilt, with budget savings made in other areas, where possible.

Throughout the whole transition, communication was channelled through daily updates from the Headmaster, Tim Manly. His informative, entertaining missives appealed to parents to provide honest feedback, and this proved instrumental in shaping our approach. As a result, the comments received were full of praise for the commitment, creativity, speed of adaptation and sheer hard work that Hurst staff had demonstrated, and sharing this immensely positive feedback with staff was a crucial factor in maintaining morale throughout a very difficult time for everyone in the country.

The sudden switch to remote teaching and learning has allowed us to embrace technology in a number of new and innovative ways, beyond just the delivery of online, live lessons – impressive though that has been. Two examples of these are the remote exams that we organised for Lower Sixth students and a remote parents’ evening that took place recently. The remote exams took place through Teams, and five minutes before the start time, students were sent instructions to download and print the exam paper. To replicate exam conditions, students completed their exams in front of their webcam, supervised by staff. They then photographed and uploaded their scripts at the end of the exam. We upscaled this method for all year groups to conclude the year just as if we were physically on site – as most teachers and some students now are. The remote parents’ evening allowed parents, pupils and teachers of each subject to come together in a meeting, wherever they were based, and proved to be hugely popular with all concerned.

Ongoing review
Whilst the speed of change and scale of the shift has been remarkable, the ongoing challenge was – and still is – to continue to evolve our practice and respond to feedback from staff, pupils and parents to ensure that our remote learning programme is the best it can possibly be. Initiatives such as a pupil survey threw up all sorts of new questions around screen time, webcams, internal exam schedules, and – above all – the need to replicate as best we can the sense of community which makes Hurst such a special place to learn and work. There is still huge uncertainty as to when we will return en masse, and in what format. But there is no doubt that when we do return – and we will – we will be all the stronger for the huge advances made thus far.

Please follow the links below for further information about Hurstpierpoint College, an independent, co-educational, day and boarding school for pupils aged 4–18, located just to the north of the village of Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex.

Prep & Pre-Prep
Senior School
Sixth Form
College Campus