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Anna Firth is a councillor on Sevenoaks District Council, former academy governor and National Director of the Conservative Policy Forum. Stephen James is a state school teacher and specialist leader of education from Folkestone. They are the co-founders of the Invicta Summer Academy.

The Prime Minister is right that getting children back to school this week is a national priority and a moral duty…but it is also the easy part. As Robert Halfon has already rightly observed: “the biggest challenge is going to be looking after those children who’ve not been learning in the lockdown and helping them catch up”.

Learning losses due to Covid-19 are now widely accepted to be much greater than first thought, with the latest study from the National Foundation of Educational Research reporting on Tuesday that the majority of children in England are at least three months behind, with boys and poor pupils the worst hit.

Once children were locked down in their homes, learning losses were inevitable. Learning losses due to the sox-week summer break (a historical anomaly to enable children to be available to help with the harvest) is a known educational problem – let alone 6 months.

Teaching is a skilled profession which requires the patience of a saint and a university degree. Without the levelling-up effect of experienced and skilled teachers, children were always going to suffer. Differing levels of parental support/education, home environments, access to ICT, nutrition and physical activity were always going to play a part. Some children will have made significant progress while others have regressed or potentially had misconceptions embedded by parents who, although meaning well, are not qualified teachers.

Research published by UCL’s Institute of Education in mid-June showed that 20 per cent of pupils, equivalent to two million children, did no schoolwork at home during lockdown, or less than one hour a day, compared to 17 per cent who did more than four hours a day. Shockingly, the same study showed that only six per cent of state schools provided four or more online lessons a day compared to 31 per cent of independent schools.

In other words, 94 per cent of state schools did not offer significant amounts of online lessons, despite it being perfectly possible to do so. They opted, instead, to create worksheets, learning grids and other passive ways of learning…contrast this to the ease with which the private sector moved quickly and rapidly moved their teaching and learning online. Even the Government-backed Oak National Academy, although ‘online’, is still passive – more like watching an episode of Netflix. None of which are the same as a teacher in front of a child delivering expert teaching and delivering feedback ‘in the moment’.

Many Heads will have been planning diligently throughout the summer about how to address the six month learning vacuum, and the Government’s £1 billion pledge to help children catch up is a welcome step in the right direction, as is the National Tutoring Programme. But a huge opportunity to shrink the learning vacuum has already been lost.

It did not have to be this way. The simplest and easiest way to help children catch up would have been to institute a massive summer catch-up, which the Prime Minister himself called for in mid-June. But who kicked up a fuss about asking teachers to teach through summer (in these unprecedented times)? The teaching unions who, if you believe their narrative, speak for the whole profession,

Luckily, in many parts of the country dedicated parents, councillors and teachers heeded the Prime Minister’s sensible words and stepped up. Makeshift classrooms and schools popped up in village halls and gardens all over the country, including the online schools such as the Invicta Summer Academy, which started in Kent but morphed into five, fully-staffed academies in Oxford, London, Lancashire and London, serving children all over the country.

Despite the trade union narrative and lack of action from state schools, over 240 teachers applied to teach at one of the five Invicta Summer Academies. A hundred and twenty-seven teaching professionals were eventually recruited, a third of whom were volunteers – eventually delivering 35,839 live, interactive, learning opportunities.

The latest Government guidance for full school opening, which states that all schools should have “a strong contingency plan in place for remote education provision by the end of September”, is the very definition of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Continued remote learning should not be a contingency plan.  It should be a mandatory and on-going requirement. Remote learning, as projects like the Invicta Summer Academy have aptly demonstrated, is the cheapest and most effective way to help a whole generation of children catch up quickly.

Almost certainly, the biggest pilot of live, interactive online teaching ever in the UK, early exit survey feedback from nearly 200 parents whose children attended the Invicta Summer Academy is mind-blowing. Schools, local authorities and the DfE might do well to heed our findings, hard won at the ‘digital chalkface’.

  • 94 per cent of pupils were from state schools, suggesting that device poverty may not be as widespread as has been reported.
  • 60 per cent of students attended all maths and english sessions in the week, high level of attendance for the summer holidays.
  • 84 per cent of parents agreed that the live, interactive, online lessons were as engaging as “live” lessons in the classroom
  • 89 per cent of parents said that the online lessons had: improved their children’s understanding of the subject; prepared their children to go back to school with confidence, and helped their child feel more prepared to go back to school this week.
  • 94 per cent said they would recommend the online school to others; and
  • 57 per cent of parents said their children were more confident learning online as their peers could not see them making mistakes.

And the cost to the taxpayer? Zero. Supported by trusts, foundations, schools and our gofundme page, the cost of all 645 lessons was around £53,000. The cost per pupil per lesson was £1.48 – a whole morning’s learning, about the same as a large cappuccino from Starbucks.

Contrast this to the Oak National Academy, which has been awarded £4.3 million pounds of taxpayers’ money (without tender) to create 10,000 pre-recorded Netflix style lessons, and you have to ask yourself: is minding the pennies still a conservative mantra? Is seeking educational excellence really the order of the day?

Necessity is always the mother of invention and projects such as Invicta (and there were many more up and down the country) shows what can be achieved when financially responsible, motivated communities come together around a common goal.

We have a moral duty to help children catch up as quickly as humanly possible. The power of online tuition to help a generation of children catch-up is immense. With thought and imagination, it is perfectly possible to take Eton into every home. Forward-looking public schools, keen to preserve their charitable status, are both willing and eager to help. After school or Saturday catch-up classes have both been suggested. Unprecedented times call for innovative solutions. Schools and educators need to grasp this opportunity with both hands.

The Prime Minister wants “levelling up” opportunity across the UK. “Levelling up” begins with “catching up”. The teaching unions have put the future of a whole generation of children in jeopardy. Our children are our future. If we don’t educate them well, we won’t have a future.

46 comments for: Anna Firth and Stephen James: To help children catch up, we need a massive extension of quality remote teaching and learning

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