Remote learning in schools remains a hotly debated topic – with many raising concerns over its effectiveness and ability to combat inequality.
However no one is more aware of these issues than education providers, and head teachers in Dundee say they are doing everything in their power to overcome these issues in a challenging environment.
Fiona McLagan, head teacher of St John’s High School, said that despite the constraints Covid-19 restrictions have placed on schools, her priority remains “getting everyone involved in learning”.
Mrs McLagan said: “We have insight which allows us to see who is in lessons and anyone who is not we will have discussions to see what the issue is and what further support is required.
“Young people who we know might struggle in a home environment are already in school and guidance staff will contact anyone who is not engaging in lessons to see if they might need to come into school or how we can support them at home.
“There is a difference in the expectation of parents and grandparents and children’s learning experience can’t be the same because they have different environments so it’s about adopting and tailoring what we do to suit that.”
Mrs McLagan said many of the lessons involved class discussions and group activities so pupils who are not engaging can be clearly identified with more information than registration.
Practical issues relating to access to laptops and internet, which arose in the first lockdown, have been resolved by the school with a second handout of equipment including remote Wifi devices.
And conversations are still ongoing to offer more equipment to families where siblings are sharing use of a device.
But Mrs McLagan said one of the school’s biggest challenges was getting staff to “skill-up” and be in a position to confidently deliver digital learning.
She set up a classroom with a webcam to allow teachers to practice delivering lessons to a camera and staff underwent professional learning with digital teams and through webinars.
She said: “We made that decision based on where staff were naturally in March – their skillset, in terms of digital learning, has gone from little to hugely skilled – it’s lifted to in-depth knowledge.
“Staff have worked tirelessly to come to terms with new software, to confidently deliver live online sessions, and dedicated a huge amount of time to a high level of professional learning.
“It’s opened up a whole element of learning which we had not considered before, learning in school which we had not tapped into before and will continue to do so in the future.”
Mrs McLagan said some of the benefits included the creation of an online bank of previous lessons which pupils could return to if they had missed classes due to illness or at a later date for revision.
She added that pupils had coped well with the cancellation of exams this year – the main difference being that they had been given prior notice so were able to prepare and work in a more effective way throughout the year.
She said: “It has relieved them of a pressure which caused them increasing anxiety in the past.
“Some children do well in exams and others become very stressed out and don’t do as well as they could so it gives them the platform to demonstrate how fabulous they are.”
Schools are currently scheduled to return on February 1.
Covid-19 has exposed the inequalities in the education system
Equal access to remote learning is not enough for everyone to benefit equally from it, says one sociology expert.
Alexander Law, professor of sociology at Abertay University, believes the disruption to schooling which Covid-19 has brought is and will further “deepen existing patterns of educational inequalities”.
Professor Law believes that unequal starting points to facilitate remote learning, including space, privacy and material and emotional investment from parents will exacerbate the attainment gap and its long-term impact on wider society.
He said: “Covid-19 has negatively exposed the underlying fragility of what in Scotland is called ‘the democratic intellect’, which assumes that everyone has an equal opportunity based on ability and effort in a society where qualifications are a guarantee of a rewarding career and a decent standard of living.
“It is well known that children and young people living in the most deprived communities do significantly worse at all levels of the education system than those from our least deprived communities.
“Remote learning compounds this because of differences of space, privacy, the digital divide, and the grossly unequal cultural starting positions of the sort that education particularly values and rewards.
“Even if remote learning is made available to all, as teachers have worked incredibly hard to achieve, this would not by itself increase the ability for all to benefit from it equally.”
Professor Law says that after the “covid war”, long-term, structural reform is necessary to begin to equalise the preconditions for student learning alongside significant investment in professional jobs.
He said: “Schools have achieved a lot over the past decade to improve student attainment in disadvantaged areas but social mobility is at a standstill and will likely go into reverse (downward mobility) unless income inequalities, closely related to educational inequalities, are tackled root and branch.
“Inequality in the UK is among the worst in Europe. Low educational attainment is devastating in a society increasingly reliant on qualifications as a measure of a person’s worth.
“If we seriously want to address social scarring and repair the broken education of this generation then the progressive redistribution of society’s resources is necessary.
“Serious public investment could then take place in essential services and infrastructure. Education should be seen as a public good not a private right.”
He said the closest comparison to disruption to education was during WWII, which lasted for a significantly longer period of six years, and resulted in polarisation of educational attainment and opportunities.
Professor Law said: “This experience was much more extreme than the current disruption, and the world is very different in any case.
“A major difference is that the experience of total war created demands for a better future that led to the establishment of the welfare state and full employment as government policy.
“In my view this is the scale of the vision that education and the wider society needs after the covid war.”