Throughout the pandemic, boarding schools moved learning online, but as the autumn term starts, the first question to answer is what future is there for online learning in UK boarding schools?
The short answer is that most schools have been desperate to return to face-to-face study and only a few are continuing to offer online learning provisions in addition to face-to-face learning.
Earlscliffe head Joss Williams represented the views of many in the sector when he said: “Blended learning can be made to work, but there is no replacement for face-to-face learning – the nuance, sense of a child’s mood, ability to encourage, support and nurture cannot be fully replicated. Even though our online provision was highly praised by students and parents, it is not enough in the long term.”
However, some boarding schools were already embracing online learning prior to the pandemic and appear to have been well placed to develop it further. Harrow online, offering 100 percent online learning for sixth-form pupils, is a good example.
“There is also the opportunity for a traditional UK boarding school to offer a blended learning option with a Hong Kong-based provider offering project-based learning, sports and face-to-face learning alongside accessing the core curriculum from the UK,” said UK Education Guide director Rafael Garcia-Krailing. “To our knowledge, no school has progressed this option yet – but it will be interesting to see if this happens, post pandemic.”
Certainly one aspect of school life that is unlikely to change back is the move to “virtual” parents evenings. For some schools, like Brooke House College, with most parents based overseas the move to an online parents evening has been an incredibly popular move and principal Mike Oliver describes it as a definite “Covid keeper.”
Other technological initiatives have also found favor and one of the more innovative ideas comes from Pangbourne College. The college identified early on in the pandemic that capturing the opinions and thoughts of students was trickier.
Prior to Covid-19, house councils were run during house assemblies to contribute ideas and opinions that were then collated. As Covid-19 impacted many of these group activities, it was decided to place QR codes in the boarding houses. These codes directed students to a standard form that they could then complete. The results were collated and evaluated by staff.
Housemaster David Metcalfe said: “Not only did this get around the issue of not being allowed large gatherings but allowed students to give feedback as and when they wanted. It also allowed students who might have missed the regular meeting – and those who might find it difficult to discuss an issue that was important to them in front of their peers – to have an equal say in how things were done.”
Pangbourne intends to keep the QR idea alive long after the pandemic restrictions have ended.
And what about pastoral care? As already highlighted with regards to the limitations of online learning, judging a child’s mood from a screen has proved very challenging. Some schools have found an additional investment in mental health services during the pandemic has really paid off.
Mike Oliver from Brooke House said: “The pandemic has made us all reassess aspects of welfare amongst pupils and staff, so having more mental health first-aiders available, additional wellbeing support and access to health professionals for staff and pupils has been fully warranted over the last year and so well received that we will be keeping them.”
Some schools have also faced additional pastoral care challenges with pupils returning to school after a prolonged absence. Schools tried incredibly hard to replicate the boarding-school routine for remote pupils, but the reality is that some pupils will have had more freedom and less supervision at home and so it is hard for some to adapt back to boarding life.
Caroline Nixon, director of The British Association of Independent Schools with International Students, said: ” Really understanding what pupils are thinking and feeling remotely is very hard, there is simply no replacement for seeing a young person around a school every day and having unstructured conversations with them. Some young people do not respond to ‘planned’ communications, like Zoom meetings, but there has simply been no alternative for schools but to plan catch-ups, and whilst they are useful they can never replace face-to-face daily, regular, unstructured contact.”
Also, due to the pandemic, “the challenge has been to not just make pastoral care relate purely to ‘medical’ wellbeing,” said Williams.
School leaders are also keen to return to school trips and a full cocurricular life. Virtual tours via platforms such as Google Arts and Culture are wonderful, but nothing can replace the richness of visiting a theater or historical site in person.
So whilst some aspects of pandemic life have led to excellent new initiatives most school leaders will keep some of the tech, but not much else. Their message is clear: there is simply no replacement for a full, face-to-face boarding-school experience
Pat Moores is the director of UK Education Guide, an independent source of advice and information about UK Education providers.