Agenda item

Verbal update on the position with schools and blended learning: Chief Officer, Children and Young People


Will McLean delivered the update and answered the members’ questions:

On 17th December, the local authority decided its return to school plans, with agreement that the first 2 days of the term should be remote learning, with face-to-face resuming on 6th January. That decision was communicated to parents, and we agreed to meet on 4th to appraise the evolved situation. On 4th, we discussed changing our plans; however, our local discussions were superseded by the Minister’s intervention: she announced that all schools would remain on remote learning until 18th January. When the decision to return on 6th was made, the rate in Monmouthshire was 409 per 100,000; when we discussed it again on 4th, the rate had fallen to 316 per 100,000. Debates with the Minister continued, then on 8th January she announced that education would form part of the 3-weekly review cycle, that there would be no face-to-face learning for the vast majority of pupils until 28th January at the earliest, and it would likely be half term before the majority of pupils began phasing back into school.

Two factors surrounded that discussion: were schools a safe place for pupils and staff, and the impact on the R number of closing schools to face-to-face learning. Discussions with Trade Unions have focussed on the first factor, but always with due regard to the second. The outcome is that our schools are currently open, providing remote learning to the vast majority of pupils, with two key exceptions: vulnerable children and children of critical workers. For the former, we have worked very closely with Social Services colleagues to determine 6 categories of learners who fall into that group – our underlying principle is that anyone who is safer at school than at home should be in school. For the latter, there have been a couple of changes from the first lockdown when our schools provided Hub provision: first, it has become apparent that only one parent has to be a critical worker in order to access the provision, and second, Welsh Government has published a list of occupations that qualify as ‘critical work’, to which we can work. But we continually stress that face-to-face learning should be a last resort for families.

At primary and secondary, 908 pupils have registered as critical worker children; on average, last week 570 attended school. 363 vulnerable learners have registered, with an average of 218 attending last week. The range of attendee numbers depends on the location and context of a school, and the community it serves e.g. Osbaston has 100 registered children, with none or only a few registered in the more rural schools. Overall, this is a significant increase on the last week of Hub provision, in which approximately 400 children attended. This rate is likely to increase if we remain in the remote learning pattern for an extended period.

This is challenging for a number of reasons. In Spring 2020, schools were repurposed to provide childcare, but now are expected to deliver education. This draws on the schools’ resources, as they are supporting both children in school and those accessing remote learning, which in turn affects staff management. We have been in debates with headteachers and union colleagues about how staff are managed. Another challenge is the significant pressure on parents: there are schools with very high parental expectations as well as families that, for a variety of good reasons, don’t always have the means by which to support their children. It is therefore a difficult line to walk for schools, as some families want more work and others want less. We are working closely with the Education Achievement Service to identify best practice.

Children’s wellbeing is the critical element throughout this period. Over time, we need to think about how we establish that wellbeing support. Another critical factor to consider is the different approaches to remote learning given the range in age of pupils.

Clarifying definitions is important. ‘Distanced learning’ is the same as ‘remote learning’, defined as ‘an approach that combines face-to-face and distance learning experiences. Face-to-face learning and distance learning should complement each other, driven by a single curriculum.’ ‘Blended learning’ is learning that is provided by a combination of face-to-face learning and distance learning tasks and activities. The ‘Flipped classroom’ is often mentioned in this regard. ‘Face-to-face learning’ is that which is received when children are physically in a school. ‘Synchronous learning’ is when teachers and learners attend a lesson at the same time, either face-to-face or online i.e. a live lesson. ‘Asynchronous learning’ is when teachers provide learning materials (videos, audio clips, presentations, etc.) which are uploaded to a platform like Hwb, which can then be accessed by students at any time. ‘Online learning’ (or ‘e-learning’) is education that takes place over the internet, so a different type of distanced-learning. Headteachers will talk about these approaches at the seminar on Thursday.

We continue to offer through the EAS a significant amount of professional learning for our schools so they are fully aware of the latest techniques and approaches. We are looking at how we develop and share best practice across the region.


What is the situation now with laptop and equipment provision?

In the first lockdown, there was a big push to provide equipment to children, with significant amounts of kit given out. Understanding the level of need that remains was our first consideration following the Minister’s statement on 4th January, so we have been working closely with the schools and the digital team. As of yesterday, we had 37 requests for laptops across our schools; they have been sourced and will be with those families by the end of the week. The procedure is: we acquire the equipment and install Neverware, which, essentially, turns a laptop into a Chromebook, which provides al the functionality necessary to access Hwb, Google Classroom and other platforms used to provide learning to children. At the start of the pandemic, we purchased a significant number of My-Fi, which are dongles providing a direct internet connection, for households with a broadband problem. We have a number of those left and will continue to provide those as needed. Welsh Government did bring forward quite considerably its EdTech funding to renew IT stock in schools as a matter of course. There has been a global supply chain challenge in terms of the significant demand for equipment but we have 300 Chromebooks being built for us now, and 170 other devices – so over 450 devices that will be rolled out to schools in the coming weeks. As this happens, the older kit can have Neverware installed, and passed out to families, should the need still exist.

What percentage of children are receiving live lessons?

The benefit of synchronous/live learning is a perceived one – research shows that it is not found to be of greater benefit than other means of delivering remote learning. The Educational Endowment Foundation says, “Pupils can learn through remote learning. Ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present – for example, clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback – is more important than how or when they are provided. There was no clear difference between learning in real time (synchronous) and alternatives (asynchronous). For example, teachers might explain an idea live or in a pre-recorded video. What matters most is whether the explanation builds clearly on pupils’ prior learning or how pupils’ understanding is subsequently assessed.” This shows that both approaches have a place. It’s impossible to say that ‘one size fits all.’ Having a child in front of a laptop for a whole day is not a good outcome. Teacher and classroom engagement are really important. The way forward is probably to think about having some tasks be asynchronous, and some be synchronous in instances where pupils need contact with the teacher.

Are we tracking the level of engagement that pupils have with blended learning provision?

All of our schools track engagement levels. Some schools have better access to analytics than others, which we are working with our colleagues to understand. One of the challenges is that, inevitably, people will draw comparisons between classes within a school, between schools in an area, etc., but there are different approaches in different schools to pedagogy and how learning takes place. So some variance is to be expected. There can be a weakness if there are large numbers in a household trying to access the internet at the same time – having asynchronous resources that children can draw on later can be a benefit there.

Is there some form of emergency provision that we can put in place for those who need kit, rather than waiting for the order to go through? How does provision of equipment tally with the large uptake of FSM pupils?

We have seen significant growth in FSM, related to the economic impact of the pandemic. We pay any of our families who are entitled to FSMs directly on a weekly basis, £3.90 per day, per child. Regarding an emergency response, by the end of this week anyone that has indicated they are in need of equipment will have it. In terms of parental provision, we are providing this equipment to those families who need it. If access to learning were to continue to be a challenge for a family then at some point it becomes a form of vulnerability, at which point we could think about providing a place in school for that learner, to access the resources there. But all of the evidence with which we have been provided is that the kit has been supplied to those households that need it.

For information, BT and EE are currently doing unlimited data at no extra cost to help with home learning.

Yes, the Chief Executive has been campaigning online recently to raise awareness of this, as some of those offers were available in England, and not necessarily in Wales. Schools have been trying to make families aware of those opportunities.

Chair’s Summary:

We have had clarification about synchronous and a-synchronous learning. Parents have spoken to members about hardware – it is heartening to hear about the provision of those, and broadband, to low-income families. It is a major concern across the country, especially in families with numerous children and parents working from home. We will keep an eye on the matter. Councillor Dymock will share details of BT and EE’s unlimited data offers. The committee gives its thanks to everyone working in education.