How has it been possible, within less than 14 days, for schools across the country to shift from going about their normal teaching routines to offering a remote learning environment? Dr Leo Dudin, Deputy Head, Academic explains how Oakham’s community of pupils, parents and staff, totalling over 3,000 people, have risen to this challenge.
In the blink of an eye, parents across the world have become teachers, and teachers have scrambled to re-apply their knowledge and skills to teach remotely. Pupils used to being in close quarters with their peers now find themselves alone, in front of a screen. Each side has to master new technologies, all in a time of never-ending complex changes. At Oakham, all have had to step outside their comfort zones, take a deep breath and dive in, as the established school community rapidly learns, adjusts and delivers to meet the needs of everyone in this new context. It has been a whirlwind of change, but as we settle into the realities of this new era of education, guided by our core values, there are some smiles to be seen, albeit on screen.
The first question we asked ourselves at Oakham was what should we prioritise in this new digital world of education, as it would be naive to think it could stay exactly the same as the typical school experience. There was one central tenet that we wanted to hold and replicate digitally: the relationships within our community.
Firstly, in class; teaching is built on strong pupil-teacher two-way teaching relationships, so we decided to embrace fully two-way virtual education, rather than simply setting work to be done remotely, without any interaction or feedback. Rather than expect parents to become teachers overnight, we were adamant we would remain the teachers, fulfilling our duty to our pupils and parents.
Secondly, we wanted to embed our strong pastoral systems into our remote learning approach because our pupils are still at school, just not on the school grounds. While lessons were an immediate concern, academic success is built on strong pastoral foundations, and so it was decided that our new timetable must be structured to include multiple strands of personal and tutor group interactions, allowing pupils to meet daily with fellow tutees, tutors and Housemasters/Housemistresses. Given the wider context, we feel this is even more important than usual, and so we have built-in extra moments in the week for these interactions. We realise that some of our pupils will be facing tough situations, and the structure a timetable provides, and the network of positive, caring interactions with peers and staff, will be crucial for some in the weeks ahead.
With these two areas of focus identified, it became clear, early on, that ‘online learning’ was too limited a description for the ambitious, personal and dynamic approach we wanted to create at Oakham. We began to think more holistically, and so it became our ‘Distance Learning Programme’, a subtle but significant change in focus, as there is more to a school than just the academic studies.
Putting relationships and interactions at the heart of our online learning approach, it was clear that Microsoft Teams fitted our needs as it allowed video discussions with a whole class of pupils. It has proven up to the job - enabling teachers to share screens as they live-stream lessons, incorporate their pre-recorded content, and for pupils to submit work.
The challenge has been (and continues to be) to get everyone in our community suitably skilled, competent and then confident in using Teams, all within a very short period of time. Oakham is one of the largest co-educational boarding and day schools in the country, with over 1,000 pupils and hundreds of teaching staff. This Herculean effort was cascaded down from Heads of Department, then through nominated departmental leads, who were trained first so that they could then pass on the skills needed to other members of their department. This process has thereby allowed subject specialists to quickly access a common set of tools and then adapt them to best suit the teaching of their specific subject.
Despite global spikes in usage, as whole countries suddenly switch to working online, Microsoft Teams works well. Like others across the country, our teachers have shown an incredible willingness to adjust their style of teaching to these new working practices during an already stressful period of time. Day by day, they have become increasingly brave in talking facing the camera, rather than just using live-streamed audio. Our lessons are now increasingly becoming a mixture of pre-recorded content that teachers make beforehand, combined with live teaching time, facilitating a more dynamic, personal and high-quality remote learning experience for Oakhamians. The work our teachers have (and continue to) put in showcases our exceptional Oakham community. In the background, there has also been our dedicated team of IT specialists and trainers who have worked equally relentlessly to ‘power’ the systems for pupil and teachers.
Alongside the challenges for staff, the learning curve has also been huge for our pupils. Their induction to remote learning, via a two-day whole-school tutorial programme, saw them learn how to use Microsoft Teams, as well as being walked through all of our new online behaviour policies. This focus on technical skills and behaviour helped pupils understand, from the outset, what was expected of them in our new Distance Learning Programme, and they have responded with great maturity, assisting all to engage fully in the brave new world of online classrooms.
Foremost though, has been our focus on supporting them through this complex and challenging time. Through our new timetable, with shorter lessons and longer breaks, we have tried to give pupils the space and time to adjust to the enormity of the change that faced them. ‘Less is more’ initially, as everyone gets used to these new ways of learning, while we also adapt our programme as all involved become more confident in distance learning. Finding the balance between directed teaching and self-study, and between screen time and non-screen learning will be key.
The structure of the day has become even more critical - pupils registering with their House in the mornings gives a clear ‘start’ to their day. This, combined with Form Time and tutorials, has also enabled our sense of connectedness and community to continue; a focus that is even more important at this time of social distance. We have tried, too, to keep the term’s structures in place – with the end of term Chapel service, recorded for all members of the Oakham community, serving to bring our School together, albeit virtually, for one last time to mark the end of the Spring Term. The undoubtable highlight was the Chapel Choir’s remote rendition of ‘You raise me up’. Cleverly masterminded and digitally remixed by our Director of Music, Peter Davis, from each pupil’s personal recording, it showcases all that is so incredibly special about Oakham – teamwork, talent and togetherness.
Families too find themselves facing new challenges; working from home, themselves getting to grips with technology they may not be familiar with. We have worked hard to consolidate advice from across our pastoral support networks to create a series of guides for our parents, to help them navigate their way. (Any parent who hasn’t yet read these can access them via the Parent Portal.) These guides offer support on everything: from how to create a positive learning space at home, to how to best support pupils with their studies and their well-being. We have signposted yoga resources (Yoga by Tim), mindfulness apps (Headspace) and online support groups (tweentips.co.uk), as well as fun family films that are guaranteed to raise a smile if isolation becomes overwhelming. Our main advice has been to set up (and stick to) good routines for the school day and week – to provide a structure during a time that is, in the wider world, chaotic. A vital part of this routine is to spend at least one hour outside - ideally exercising, inspired by our ever-active Physical Education Department, as well as continuing and developing hobbies and talents away from the screen. Our brilliant Art Department are inspiring pupils with their ‘daily creative prompts’ on Instagram - @oakham_art, a recipe book is going to be compiled to encourage cookery during isolation, and a photo competition has also been launched.
Seeing the positives
At times of crisis, there comes clarity about what is important. For us, it is that human relationships are at the heart of education. That face-to-face interactions and relationships matter and bring learning to life. By continuing to place a premium on maintaining relationships first and foremost, I believe we have seen success. Not by way of anything that could be graded academically, but through the inestimable value of pupils settling quickly into distance learning and, judging by the initial wave of positive feedback we have received, from parents feeling relieved that their children are calmly enjoying their learning during such a chaotic and unsettling time. As one parent fed back: “I could not stop myself from emailing you. You all are doing such a fantastic job in these extraordinary times. Our sincere thanks to the Oakham staff for carrying out such a difficult task of not only educating our children but at the same time catering to their emotional need and mental well-being.”
The challenge, of course, continues. We look forward to seeing even more smiles in the Summer Term.