In the event that a student cannot attend class as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, ministers have made it clear that schools are required to ensure that they have “immediate” access to remote learning.
According to the government guidance on opening schools, last updated on 1 October, where a pupil is unable to attend school because they are complying with clinical or public health advice, “we expect schools to be able to immediately offer them access to remote education”.
It is not something about which schools can be complacent (not that they have been). On 30 September, the government used temporary continuity direction powers which will place an obligation on schools to provide swift access to remote education if pupils can’t make it into school because of the pandemic. These powers come into effect on 22 October.
Coronavirus: DfE guidelines for remote learning
As Tes reported, the move was not well received. But aside from concerns about the way in which the guidance is being imposed, there remain a number questions about what it actually means.
How soon is “immediate”? Does the remote learning need to involve real-time teaching? What if a pupil hasn’t got access to the internet?
We have taken these queries to the Department for Education, and a spokesperson has responded.
What does 'immediate' actually mean?
"We expect schools to provide immediate provision of remote education, as set out in the guidance, so that pupils do not fall behind. This provision should start from the first full school day a child has to remain at home."
What format is acceptable? Does it include printed booklets /worksheets or is it only online?
"We understand that immediate remote education provision may be challenging for some schools. Schools may consider different forms of remote education such as printed resources or textbooks, supplemented with other forms of communication to keep pupils on track or answer questions about work."
For online remote learning, does there need to be a live, real-time teaching element or would pre-recorded videos be acceptable?
"Neither the direction nor the expectations set out in guidance require the live-streaming of lessons. Live-streaming is one approach that is proving effective for many schools and pupils."
What if the right technology is not available to the student? For example, would the school need to provide a computer if the student doesn’t have one?
"If some pupils do not have access to devices, schools can distribute school-owned laptops accompanied by a user agreement or contract. They can also remind pupils that access is also possible through large-screen smartphones.
"Affected pupils can be supported to come into school to use school resources within any rules in force at the time. Additionally, textbooks can be used at home to provide a structure to learning, supplemented with other forms of communication to keep pupils on track or answer questions about work."
How many hours of learning are schools expected to deliver to the child? And how is this to be monitored?
"When teaching pupils remotely, we expect schools to plan a programme that is of equivalent length to the core teaching pupils would receive in school, ideally including daily contact with teachers."
NB: The spokesperson did not respond to the question about how this would be monitored.
Are there any acceptable exceptions to the immediate provision of remote learning? For example, if a child has a special educational need or disability that makes remote learning difficult?
"For pupils with SEND, their teachers are best-placed to know how the pupil’s needs can be most effectively met to ensure they continue to make progress even if they are not able to be in school due to self-isolating.
"The requirement for schools to use their best endeavours to secure the special educational provision called for by the pupil's special educational needs remains in place. Schools should work collaboratively with families, putting in place reasonable adjustments as necessary, so that pupils with SEND can successfully access remote education alongside their peers."
What are the actual repercussions if immediate access to remote learning does not happen?
"We will take supportive action to help schools with their remote education plans and provision.
"In the first instance, schools will be signposted to the remote education support package and encouraged to access these resources. Regional schools commissioners (RSCs) can also take supportive measures to help schools in their region with remote education."
Analysis: Is this reasonable or fair?
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders:
“These responses from the Department for Education are broadly in line with our understanding of the expectation for remote education.
“Schools are clear on what is required and are working hard to provide high-quality resources to children who are at home because they are ill or have to self-isolate. There was no need for the government to make this a legal duty through the introduction of the continuity direction which comes into force on 22 October.
“This was a heavy-handed and unnecessary move, which has caused a great deal of ill-feeling among school leaders who are under huge pressure. Schools are having to manage Covid control measures, deliver education in school, as well as remotely to those at home, and provide catch-up support, all amidst spiralling infection rates, problems with the track and trace system, and difficulties in accessing timely public health advice. For the government to then create a new legal duty to deliver something they are already delivering adds insult to injury.”
James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union:
“School leaders accept that they have a responsibility to support remote learning and have been working throughout the summer and this term to get that ready. However, the government's actions in making this a legal duty are wholly unnecessary and actually make organising remote learning provision more difficult for schools in many cases.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the initial guidance wasn’t clear enough. The fact that we, and Tes, have had to go to the DfE to clarify what certain aspects mean...demonstrates that it wasn’t clear enough. In a sense, this wouldn’t have mattered too much had the government not imposed the continuity order.
“When it was just guidance, schools didn’t have to worry too much about some of the ambiguities, but now it has a legal status school leaders quite rightly want to know precisely what each bullet point means. The DfE is its own worst enemy in this sense.
“Having remote provision ready the next day will, in many cases I think, be a totally unrealistic expectation that places intolerable pressure on schools and teachers. Imagine the scenario: you get a call at 3pm to say a pupil will be self-isolating from tomorrow. You then have to arrange for all their teachers to prepare remote provision and to gather feedback, etc.
“This is in addition to planning the usual face-to-face lessons in the usual manner. Also, if pupils need physical resources, how can schools be expected to get these to the pupils the next day if the family is self-isolating?
“The DfE acknowledges that ‘immediate remote education provision may be challenging for some schools’ but then go on to suggest schools use physical resources as a solution – again, how would you get these to pupils by the next day? It also demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how schools work where teachers work responsively and plan lessons based on how the pupils did the day before – they don’t just trudge their way through textbooks.
“It is really important to stress that the guidance does not require live streaming of lessons. While this may work for some, it won’t be appropriate for all, and there are a number of risks with streaming lessons that schools will need to be mindful of.
“We welcome the message that the government will be supportive before reaching for legal action. However, it rather begs the question: why take these unnecessary legal powers?”