What’s it like to teach at an online-only school?

After lockdowns, this tutoring firm saw a gap in the market for a fully online school that gives pupils, teachers and parents ultimate flexibility. Molly Bolding finds out how it works
28th July 2022, 5:40pm
Would you teach at an online school?


What’s it like to teach at an online-only school?


Cast your mind back to the summer term of 2020, when thousands of pupils, and their teachers, were logging on to laptops every day for online lessons at home. 

While many teachers would be filled with dread at the thought of returning to that way of life, there will be others who miss the benefits it brought - the increased flexibility, for example.

But what if you could work at a school where the learning was always online, all of the time?

That’s the case at Minerva’s Virtual Academy, a fully online independent school for 12- to 18-year-olds, which attempts to bridge the gap between entirely parent-led home-schooling and the traditional school experience by combining self-study and live online lessons with field trips and after-school clubs.

The academy is a sister organisation of Minerva Tutors, a London-based tutoring firm. It began life in December 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and has been on an upwards trajectory ever since - going from 180 pupils in its first intake to 250 in its second.

Hugh Viney, the academy’s founder and chief executive, explains that the new school grew out of the increased demand for tutoring during lockdown, as parents and children found that learning from home worked for them.

“Five to 10 per cent of families in the UK enjoyed that experience and decided ‘maybe home-schooling might be the one for my kid’,” says Viney. “That’s a small percentage of children but quite a lot of kids.”

During the pandemic, Minerva Tutors was receiving lots of requests for one-to-one sessions. The problem was that accessing enough of these sessions to properly support their child’s learning was financially out of reach for many parents.

When the team at Minerva noticed how many parents wanted essentially the same thing - a Covid-safe, home-based schooling experience that covered the core subjects and qualifications - they realised there was a gap in the market for something more comprehensive than typical tutoring.

“We wanted to help more families with alternative education, which had to be affordable and still give them that sense of community,” Viney explains. “The thing which most families wanted when they called us was affordability, community…[and] a good education.”

At the moment, around 70 per cent of students at Minerva are based in the UK and 30 per cent across the rest of the world, including France, China, South Korea and India.

For many UK parents, enrolling their students at Minerva gives them access to a more structured home-schooling experience, while some overseas parents choose it to give their children access to a British curriculum and international GCSEs and A-levels.

For others, with children who are already embarking on vocational careers in sport or acting, it’s a convenient way to fit studying around regular travel and additional commitments.

More teaching and learning:

So, what is it like to teach at a fully virtual school?

The academy operates on four “pillars”, Viney explains: a virtual learning platform, which students use to study independently day to day; live lessons, for classes of 10 to 20 students; a one-to-one mentor for each child; and interactive extracurricular activities and occasional in-person meet-ups, to create a stronger sense of community.

For teachers, one of the advantages of the online approach is that they can be based anywhere in the world - and so can the students.

The school currently employs staff across several time zones, from London to Dubai, offering them the opportunity to keep a full-time contract while travelling or working from home.

Despite being entirely online, the structure of the school week is fairly recognisable: students have assembly on Mondays, after-school clubs every day, homework help and parent meetings, with the addition of wellbeing sessions on Thursdays for students to practise mindfulness and breathing exercises.

They even run field trips and days out twice a term for students to meet up and explore a cultural landmark. This term, they’re headed to the Houses of Parliament for a tour. “We’re starting in London,” says Viney, as that’s where the school is headquartered, but “we will do one in Paris or Amsterdam soon”.

Many of the students who choose this online offering do so because it accommodates their needs more easily than a traditional mainstream setting.

Around half of the pupils at Minerva’s Virtual Academy report some form of mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression, and around 40 per cent report some kind of neurodiversity.

Amid the pandemic, Viney notes that this has been a draw of online schooling: “So many of our kids have come to us because traditional school does not work for them. It makes them sad. It makes them anxious. It makes them frustrated.”

These students benefit from the flexibility and autonomy of online school and self-study, while also avoiding the challenges that the physical school environment can pose.

But like any educational provision, it has come with its unique set of difficulties.

One of the main ones, Viney underlines, is that students need to be prepared to work independently because much of the content is delivered via the virtual learning platform as self-study units.

Students need to be “very self-sufficient self-starters, because you do need to be able to work on your own, in your own time”, he says.

The other issue that often crops up is parents not fully appreciating the difference between conventional schooling and homeschooling; after all, online schooling through a virtual service can’t be “in loco parentis” five days a week.

Viney says staff sometimes have to remind parents that “they’re not sending the kid off to the school, who’s then in the care of the school from 8:30am to 4pm”. 

“In effect, most often, the children are in the care of the parent all day,” he says, “so that’s a new thing for [some] parents to work out.” 

The school is also not open to all - only those students whose families can afford the fees (£6,950 per school year or £2,650 per term) and who have a device to enable them to take part in the lessons - are able to enrol.

Because the school is so young, this year will be its first GCSE cohort and its first sixth-formers will start in September.

But even as they await the first official set of exam results, Viney and the faculty are confident that this new style of schooling will be a success. For them, the most important measure is whether students are enjoying school.

“That’s how we measure, based off their feedback, based on them staying with us and seeing [returning students] joining us for next year,” he explains. 

At the same time, however, there is no doubt that Viney and his staff - like teachers at in-person schools across the country - will be holding their breath for those results this summer.

“Of course, we need to be able to prove to the world that we can deliver on results, too,” says Viney. “Because, let’s face it, that’s what matters to parents as well.”

Molly Bolding is a freelance journalist, inclusion consultant and online educator

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