Coronavirus: Williamson backs national online academy

Head of virtual school, backed by nine academy chains, expect its 180 one-hour virtual lessons to be used 'extensively'
19th April 2020, 12:02am


Coronavirus: Williamson backs national online academy
Coronavirus School Closures: Education Secretary Gavin Williamson Has Backed The Online Oak National Academy

The education secretary has thrown his weight behind a national online academy providing a "comprehensive" virtual curriculum for schools to use during the coronavirus crisis.

Oak National Academy, which has the backing of nine multi-academy trusts, will provide a "sequenced" plan of hour-long lessons and curricular resources, including videos, worksheets and quizzes, compiled by 40 teachers from some of the country's "top-performing" schools.

Its principal, Matt Hood, has said he expects some MATs to use the resources "extensively" across their academies.

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The "online classroom", which will open its virtual doors on Monday, is being backed by education secretary Gavin Williamson, who described the initiative as "remarkable".

The Department for Education says the academy is being "backed by government grant funding". But it has not said how much.

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Mr Hood said that costs had already been brought down by a "very generous" offer from Google, which has given the academy free access to some of its systems.

When Tes spoke to him late on Friday afternoon, the DfE had yet to commit to funding the academy.

"At the moment, the vast majority of this is powered by goodwill and volunteers and people lending a hand," Mr Hood said.

"But we are having conversations with the department at the moment about whether they could cover some of the relatively limited costs that we've got, so that they are not incurred by any individual volunteers or any partner schools involved."

The academy will offer "sequenced" lessons that form a "comprehensive curriculum", covering core subjects at both primary and secondary level, according to the user guide for teachers.

Each lesson will be an hour long, with elements such as a quiz, a video explanation and a worksheet.

Mr Hood said pupils can use the quizzes to self-assess their progress, but these should be treated as purely "formative" assessments - meaning they should not count towards any calculated grades.

Overall, the academy will provide over 180 lessons a week, the equivalent of three hours a day for primary school pupils and four hours a day for secondary school students.

The subjects covered will be:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Science (biology, chemistry and physics at secondary level)
  • History
  • Geography
  • Modern foreign languages
  • Religious education
  • Art

The user guide says these lessons can be followed in sequence, to form "a broad and balanced curriculum", or teachers can pick and choose the content they feel is most suitable for their students.

But school leaders' union the NAHT has warned that online resources "cannot replace human interaction or the power of a teacher in front of a class of pupils".

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said: "These resources have a shelf-life that should not go beyond the coronavirus lockdown in their current form."

The online academy has stressed that its lessons are "simply resources" and "in no way replace the crucial teacher to student relationship" in schools.

Mr Hood said: "What we have tried to do is identify what we can usefully provide for [teachers], and then drawn a line.

"There is only so far that self-quizzing, for example, might get you. There is only so far that being able to figure out misconceptions by yourself, without the support of another adult - there is only so far that gets you."

Mr Hood added that there is "no quid pro quo " for academy trusts backing the online classroom - meaning there is no requirement for them to roll out the resources at their schools.

"Each of those trusts, and each of the schools involved...the same rules will apply to them, as will apply to every other school in the country - which is they have their own curriculum, their own relationships with their families, and they are in the driving seat with deciding what resources [they use], and what curriculum they want their students to follow," he said.

"And I think we'll see, just like right across the rest of the system, a really varied picture - some using them a bit, some using them in certain subjects, some using them extensively, some rolling them out."

He added: "What I hope is when everybody sees the resources on Monday and sees that hard work that these teachers have done, they'll at least find some utility in them that helps their teachers to help their pupils."

Mr Williamson said: "Oak National Academy will bring the national curriculum to life and play a crucial making sure every young person in the country can continue to learn and grow during this challenging time and into the future.  

"This extraordinary initiative builds on what many schools are already providing and is testament to the dedication and commitment of all teachers, heads and the wider sector."

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