It is 9.30am in the staff room at Manchester grammar school (MGS) and the head of chemistry, Fay Roberts, is settled in the windowless cupboard where she now does much of her teaching. All of her year 12s have turned up online to learn about the acid-catalysed elimination of an alcohol. “They’re pretty good at getting out of bed, but they’re 17-year-old boys,” she says. “If one is missing, I get one of their friends to text them and they soon turn up.”
Like all teachers at the UK’s biggest independent boys’ school, Roberts has been offering a full timetable since the school closed on 20 March – up to 49 lessons a fortnight.
All 1,600 pupils, aged seven to 18, have been expected online for their usual six daily classes, with everything from PE to organic chemistry taught over the internet instead of in the warren of buildings that sprawl across a large chunk of Rusholme, one of the most deprived and diverse wards in central Manchester.
Five days before Boris Johnson announced the closure of English schools, Martin Boulton, the high master, decided he needed to make sure all his students were online, fast. Around 120 pupils did not have access to their own computer. Many, but not all, were among the 200 boys on full bursaries at the school, which otherwise charges fees of £12,930 a year.
Staff rounded up all spare laptops, dismantled a bunch of desktop computers and dropped them off at pupils’ homes. Boulton’s ambitious plan to transfer the entire curriculum online could only work if every boy could log on to Microsoft Teams.
The fact that most state schools could not follow suit is the main reason, Boulton believes, that an estimated 2 million children in the UK – one in five of the total – have done little or no work since lockdown.
“The one thing the government needed to get right – and still needs to get right – is ensuring that every child has access to a computer and the internet. The government announced its centralised scheme offering laptops to disadvantaged children on 19 April. I had a couple of state school heads come in to share ideas yesterday and I know one of those hasn’t received a single laptop,” he said as he gave the Guardian a tour of his almost empty school.
He believes the government should have announced a national drive to get computers to all children, like it did with ventilators for hospitals. “Think of how many offices will have laptops lying around surplus to requirements.”
Ten miles away in Salford, in a modern complex next to the M60 ringroad, Ben Davis, the head at St Ambrose Barlow Roman Catholic high school, has yet to receive any of the laptops he applied for via the government scheme. Only 10 children qualified, despite more than half of his 1,000 pupils not having their own computer. Many have been sharing with siblings or home-working parents, and a small number – fewer than 20, he thinks – have no suitable device at all.
It is a common story in most state schools, he says, noting that St Ambrose is not especially deprived, with 17% of families qualifying for free school meals, compared with the England average of 13.7%.
The school quickly gave out all its spares but there were not nearly enough to go round. This is partly why the school has not been offering regular lessons live online in most subjects (“it’s a basic equality issue”), and why at Easter it decided to go analogue, buying hundreds of textbooks to deliver to families where internet and computer access was “compromised”.
It is hard to accurately work out how many children are not doing any work, says Davis, but he estimates “between 10 and 15% are doing very little – and that largely reflects our vulnerable cohort and those for whom accessing online learning is most difficult.” Some subjects are having more success in engaging children: “The art department went out delivering sketchbooks and art materials and they had nearly 100% of work back.”
Live teaching is not the holy grail, insists Davis, who has been head for almost five years. “I do think it’s perfectly possible for kids to have a really valuable experience of learning without live teaching.”
He decided early on that the wellbeing of his students had to come first. “Lost learning is serious but it’s not as serious in the long-run as damaged wellbeing, which is fundamentally a real problem for children and families. We were very concerned about the effects of isolation and the likelihood of domestic violence increasing, of families coming under strain.” Though teachers are not marking work, as advised by the National Education Union, the main teachers’ union, they phone every pupil at least once a week and give feedback whenever they can.
On Monday this week, Davis’s newly sterile school – water fountains taped off, yellow footprints in the corridors to mark out 2-metre spacings – reopened for year 10s to come in with a parent or carer for a pastoral chat with their form teacher. Half an hour each was allocated, “but some have taken an hour and a half. People have a lot to say. It all comes pouring out.”
The year 10s won’t be taught anything in school until 29 June, when they will return for one day a week in bubbles of eight pupils for private study and support with wellbeing and home learning, which will remain the predominant form of education for all St Ambrose pupils.
At MGS, which normally has 233 pupils in its Swiss chalet-like wooden junior school, year 6 pupils have been back for three weeks. Children who are at home shielding themselves or a family member are able to log in from home to a classroom rigged up with a camera so they can see their teacher and friends, chipping in when they know the answer and asking for help in real time.
The sophisticated set-up has not cost much, Boulton says. “We’ve not thrown a lot of money at this issue to make it work. We’ve asked an immense amount of our teachers.” Regardless of their own caring commitments, teachers have had to work full time, though those with children at home have been allowed to encourage more independent learning, which they mark when their own offspring are in bed.
The results, he says, have exceeded expectations. “Because we have stuck to our normal timetable, lessons have gone on as normal, but we haven’t been doing cricket fixtures, athletic meets, all of those things that would take children out of school. The focus of pace and teaching is different using the technology. Everybody has come to me and said we’ve got through the syllabus and are doing a lot of extension work.
Yes, he admits, it is undoubtedly easier when discipline is not a problem and parents are paying. Last year, 99% of MGS boys got A* to B in English language GCSE, whereas 37% of St Ambrose pupils managed a grade 5 or above (C equivalent) in English and maths.
Davis and his team decided that three hours a day was a realistic target for their pupils to learn during lockdown, down from the five they would have normally. “Fairly quickly we realised – and I realise this as a parent as well – that a lot of kids can do the work quicker – though not necessarily better – at home than they can in school, for the simple reason that they are not having a teacher stand and take a register and explain things. If you say to all the kids: ‘You must be working from 8.40 until just after 3pm,’ that’s going to create huge pressure in families. How is that practical if everyone else is working from home?”
Could St Ambrose offer a full timetable like MGS? “If we took the step of saying everything is going online, we would risk cutting out quite a large proportion of our catchment area – and we are not a school with a disproportionate level of disadvantage,” says Davis.
“If I knew all children had access to a computer and broadband, you would still need to manage the workload and the expectations on the teacher and also how you do period after period with 30 kids. In theory I can see it would have some merits. My concern is that I can’t see everyone having that provision. It’s a lovely aspiration.”
— to www.theguardian.com