Research School Network: A Central Virtual School - collaboration is the key to implementing high quality remote education.


A Central Virtual School

- collaboration is the key to implementing high quality remote education.

by Billesley Research School
on the

Johanne Clifton is the head of curriculum and virtual learning for the Elliot Foundation, a multi-academy trust with 28 schools across three regions in England. She describes the process that the Trust undertook to ensure high quality remote education during the pandemic, including the creation of a central Virtual School.

By the start of the Covid 19 period of school closures in March 2020, the use of Google for Education had been embedded in most of the schools in our multi-academy trust but there were still gaps in provision. There was also an urgent need to address issues around digital access for families. The Trust took swift action to access the DfE’s device scheme, as well as procuring further devices internally. This meant that all schools had a large number of devices with a ratio of 1:1 for pupil premium students by the start of the third lockdown. School leaders rapidly implemented support systems for families, including helpline email addresses and support videos to enable parents to access online platforms, particularly Google Classroom and Sites. However, it was evident that access to high quality remote education needed further investment. As shown in the EEF’s Remote Learning Rapid Evidence Assessment’ the quality of teaching and curriculum as well as support for pupils’ use of metacognitive strategies is key in ensuring that students receive a high quality of education. In an initial fact-finding set of conversations with leaders, it was clear that this was an area that needed further improvement.

This is where the creation of a central virtual school came into its own. The concept of a virtual school is an interesting one. There have been studies of teachers and students connecting through technology for some time, particularly when looking at global education, such as the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms initiative. In a study into international virtual schools by Sarah-Louse Jones at the University of Bedfordshire in 2015, a key finding is the importance of collaboration by teachers. She describes this as a pedagogic shift’ by educators to ensure that the school’ is effective and able to meet the needs of varying education systems. In our virtual school, collaboration is key. Staff and students from across the Trust are involved. Therefore, being open, flexible and willing to work together is essential to ensure that all students receive a high quality education. The school’ itself is simply a mechanism to implement high quality remote education.

At the core of the virtual school is a central set of Classrooms to enable on-going teaching for students who are absent from school, usually due to self-isolation. However, it is also a means for some of our most effective teachers to collaborate in order to develop high quality curriculum content which can be accessed by all schools. In addition to this, it is a means by which support can be provided to ensure that the remote education provision in all schools is of a high standard across regional boundaries.

This creates some inevitable tensions. How do pupils connect with staff from beyond their own physical school? How do staff connect with each other online in a way that builds professional relationships? What might the curriculum look like, if it cannot be a seamless match for a school-based curriculum design? The answer in part to some of these issues is that it depends on the systems and structures of the virtual school in enabling this process to be successful. It also depends on ensuring that any staff working in the virtual school are excellent practitioners and receive high quality induction and training.

The first step then in the creation of the school was the development of the team at pace. The Trust had already invested in three Innovations leads, one in each region, to support innovation in curriculum, technology and teaching. Working with the head of virtual learning, the team devised a structure for the central school based simply on classrooms which could be accessed as and when needed, staffed by teachers who were unable to attend physical school. This swiftly lessened staff workload in schools on the ground but also led to an exciting side effect. We noticed that the relationships between staff and students and then between staff themselves rapidly developed. This was not what we had expected – in fact quite the opposite. The students liked the individualised instruction they received as well as quick feedback and curriculum adaptations. Our online educators used tools such as Mote and Screencastify to record short prompts where a student needed additional support quickly as well as providing on-going welcome messages with shout-outs’ and encouragement.

Students also told us that what they particularly valued about working in the virtual school was the quantity of feedback they received from teachers as well as working with adult support. A significant proportion told us it is fantastic working this way’* and there is anecdotal evidence that some students prefer and learn better this way. All of the children told us that they felt happy, safe and that they knew where to get help when they needed it. Clear policies and procedures, such as letters for parents and safeguarding contacts at the physical school supported the effective functioning of the central offer and remain key to its success.

It was essential for quality assurance reasons that we developed a consistent framework for learning as well as expectations for marking, feedback and curriculum content. Using the EEF’s Home Learning Approaches’ document, we developed our own remote learning framework, using the key terminology and structure of activate, explain, practise, reflect and review’. This meant that all lessons were delivered using the same template but with adaptations made according to curriculum content. In order to prepare students for learning, the same metacognitive prompt was used to set the context. Each lesson starts with slides asking the student to reflect on their mood followed by a brief focus activity then a short activate session to check prior knowledge. Lessons include appropriate scaffolds and models, including short videos to model the teacher’s own thinking. There is reflection time included for students to review and evaluate their work. An area of strength that is rapidly emerging from this work is the equity of access across the Trust to our very best teachers and this has the potential to grow. An example is an exciting History offer which has been populated like a journey through a museum so that students can investigate subject content in greater detail. This will also enable us to link more closely to school led curricula over time.

Currently, the team is working on a Digital Pedagogy support programme, across 6 schools linked to the EEF implementation guidance. School leaders have worked closely with Billesley Research School on improving early reading using this guidance and so the digital team were able to build on these principles to work swiftly with teachers to provide support. Since January, we have also invested in pilot virtual tuition programmes using a similar model of asynchronous tasks which a teacher then evaluates in advance of an in-person’ teaching session in order to target catch-up’ help more effectively.

We know that technology alone is not enough to create an effective educational offer. It will not in and of itself improve academic achievement or even engagement. However, linking the potential of technology with a clear understanding of effective pedagogy will improve outcomes for students. By embedding within it, the structures for professional development through collaboration, it also contributes to knowledge building for teachers. Teachers now need the opportunity through these collaborative networks to build on our digital gains and think creatively about how they can foster deeper student learning into the future. As a trust, the investment in equity of access to the best teachers as well as targeted support through virtual learning will become an essential development in the year ahead.

*Internal survey of 1255 students


Education Endowment Fund, Rapid Evidence Assessment – summary’, June 2020

Education Endowment Fund, Home Learning Approaches – planning framework’ adapted from Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning, April 2018

Anna Craft, Possibility Thinking and Digital Play in early years settings’, adapted from Creativity and Education Futures, Learning in a Digital Age’, Trentham Books, 2011

Sarah-Louise Jones, Exploring Pedagogic Shift in a Virtual International School’, University of Bedfordshire, May 2015

OECD, Education Responses to Covid 19: Embracing digital learning and online collaboration”, March 2020

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