In recent weeks, as parents, pupils and teachers have adapted to distance learning, attention has turned to what school will look like when we are allowed back – and how the different lockdown experiences of our pupils will have affected their learning.
One of the biggest worries is that the attainment gap between those who have and those who have not will have widened, and that children with additional support needs (ASN, equivalent to special educational needs and disability (SEND) in England) will have been disproportionately affected for the worse.
"ASN" covers a wide range of difficulties, so there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Depending on the distance learning methods being used by schools, pupils with ASN may face varying difficulties in accessing the education provided.
However, as a head of learning support, I am able to share a positive message with you. Overall, I have been pleasantly surprised to find that remote learning has actually provided several benefits for this group of students.
Coronavirus: Benefits of remote learning for SEND pupils
Although many schools’ curricula aim to allow students to work at their own pace, in practice it is difficult to have 30 children working on 30 different things in a classroom environment – particularly when learning is driven by exams.
However, with formal exams cancelled and pupils isolated from one another, children are now free to work at exactly their own pace. There is no pressure to get 20 questions done in 20 minutes because nobody can see what you are doing. Students can’t see what their peers are doing and so also shed that fear of being “the slowest”. The pressure of “having to keep up” has largely been eradicated.
For students with ASN, I have seen them relax, safe in the knowledge that nobody need know that they finished their maths exercise in “learning support time”.
2. Undivided attention
Even with the best of intentions and scheduled one-to-one time, the nature of schools means that it can make it very difficult to give a student your undivided attention for the length of a lesson.
The phone rings; another teacher comes in with a query; a student comes in looking for their bag; another student needs to borrow an overlay... the distractions can be endless. I admit that I am regularly distracted by all of the above.
Yet in lockdown I am on my own, my mobile can be on silent and nobody else can enter the virtual one-to-one call I have set up. Students are getting my undivided attention and are subsequently blossoming.
3. Improved differentiation
Even with the best of intentions, not all teachers find differentiation easy. Some prefer a single resource that can be photocopied 30 times and handed out to everyone. They prefer to teach everyone in the same way and at the same time. They prefer to stick with what they know.
But with the ability to access everyone’s "class" in our preferred online platform, I have noticed the most wonderful thing: those teachers who I always assumed were reticent to differentiate are finding a way online. They have more time, they have more tools at their fingertips and the online system makes IT aids such as “Immersive reader” readily available. My students are even commenting on how easy it is to access their classes.
4. Better resources
I have been a teacher for 12 years and, as such, have a bank of resources at my disposal. Like all teachers, during regular schooling, I am bound by the timetable and am always busy running extracurricular activities, attending a myriad of meetings and so on. This means that I often revert to using old resources, rather than creating new ones.
There is often nothing wrong with that; a lot of the resources are very good. But with a little more time on my hands and a lot fewer distractions, for the first time in years I have had time to create new resources. I am not the only one – discussions with colleagues have shown that lockdown has allowed many of us to pause, take stock and create. As a result, students are enjoying a range of teaching styles and new programmes to explore.
5. Access to all work
Finally, I often rely on students bringing me the work they need help with, hunting down textbooks and jotters or trying to catch a quick conversation over coffee with a teacher to surmise what it is the student coming to me next lesson was supposed to have completed.
In this new virtual learning system I have become a member of every class and, at the touch of a button, can access students’ interactive jotters, all the lessons, prerecorded videos, assignments set and instructions given. I have never felt so able to support my students and I hope, in return, my students have never felt so supported.
I recognise that everyone’s experience of education at this time will have been different, but I hope that some solace can be found in one education leader’s experience of supporting our most vulnerable students, and how it is far from all bad news.
Aisling McGuire is head of learning support at Belhaven School in Dunbar. She tweets @aisling1105