Exeter Cathedral School (ECS) was founded in 1179 as a choir school. Nowadays, the School is a co-educational day and boarding school which prides itself on being a nurturing and purposeful school for some 260 pupils. Earlier this year, after the Prime Minister’s announcement that schools across the country were required to close, the School’s management team met to prepare for remote learning for the first time in the School’s 841-year history. We agreed on a three-phase approach.
- Phase 1: Help pupils, parents and staff navigate the three remaining days of the term.
- Phase 2: Provide immediate and long-term on-site support for key worker families.
- Phase 3: Research, prepare and launch a home learning platform to allow for a longer-term closure.
As a small school, we are mindful of budgets and of the need to be able to develop and manage our remote learning platform in-house. All of our requirements led us to Microsoft and to Microsoft Teams. 16 days later, we launched our first ever virtual learning environment: ECS:Learning@Home.
8 principles to delivering a balanced approach to remote learning
Remote learning was new to us and to our pupils and families. We knew what we asked of them needed to be realistic, doable, worthwhile and stimulating. So, we established eight founding principles that would underpin ECS:Learning@Home.
Meaningful and manageable
We worked hard to set up programmes that allowed uncomplicated access to our curriculum across the age groups. We ensured that our online learning was rich, purposeful and clear.
School is about much more than classroom learning. Through our home learning programme we were able to come together as a school for assemblies, form times, quizzes, sports days, guest speakers, Speech Day and more. This allowed us to add the important touches to a child’s day ‘at school’ and to create space for pupils to be recognised for their work and have fun with their peers.
Rigorous, balanced and flexible
We attach great importance to a broad and balanced school experience andwanted to make sure that our ‘real life’ breadth of opportunity and high standards continued to be offered remotely.
Equally, a one-size-fits-all approach was clearly not going to be good enough – each family’s circumstances were different. So we empowered pupils and parents to access our full daily offerings as they saw fit and to build in screen-free time to their routines.
Interaction is absolutely fundamental for effective learning and teaching – and of course for first-rate pastoral care. We wanted to use a digital platform that could replicate, as closely as possible, a classroom experience. We were determined to be live, interactive, and reactive to pupils’ needs while online. Teams allowed us to do this and to achieve a coherent model of home learning and pastoral care across the school.
And as a school which has its foundations in performance, music and spirituality, we wanted to continue to be a shining light for creativity. As well as daily wellbeing sessions run by our sports department, visual and performing arts featured heavily in our programme. Each afternoon our Creativity Hub opened up and gave our pupils access to lessons and activities in music, art and design and storytelling. We even launched ECS:Choristers@Home to keep our core strands of Choristership alive.
A day in the life of a pupil in remote learning
We streamlined the timetable so that busy families could easily keep track of the daily pattern. Every pupil started their day with live ‘morning welcome’ sessions with their form teacher and friends. This was the backbone of our online pastoral provision and allowed us to continue to be a school where people matter.
Supporting staff, parents and families
Staff training was integral to the success of remote learning. We ran training events to allow teachers to learn about Teams and provided time to practise in designated Training Huddles. All of this was, of course, done remotely! We also provided parents with a weekly evening training session.
We sent out a weekly ECS:Learning@Home update, complete with videos and snippets from the week, and – crucially – a ‘You Said, We Did’ feature: this gave parents and pupils a voice, and helped us to unify our efforts and build a cohesive home-school community committed to improvement.
Pupil and staff outcomes in remote learning
Using Teams allowed us to keep doing what we love – coming together each day as a school community. We genuinely stayed connected and, in amongst all of the learning, had a whole lot of fun!
As a staff body we held games and quizzes, kept the banter flowing through Teams chat, and even had a lipsync battle with senior pupils. Teams also meant that our pupils were able to take their public exams. In fact, the class of 2020 equalled the School’s best-ever public exam results.
The success of our ECS:Learning@Home programme seems to have resonated locally and more widely. We currently have more enquiries than ever before from families who want to explore an ECS place for their child.
How remote learning impacts our future plans
We have now adopted a blended-learning approach to our curriculum with the support of Teams, using it to further pupils’ independent learning skills. Live speakers are now joining us for assemblies and Enrichment Talks via Teams to speak about topical issues and our Pupil Voice initiative continues to thrive digitally.
We see our blended learning approach being integral to our provision over the coming months and years – it’s here to stay.
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About the author
James Featherstone is the Headmaster of Exeter Cathedral School. His job is to lead and manage the School, look after the team of staff, and to make sure that the 260 pupils and their families have the best possible educational journey. Before joining ECS, James was on the Senior Leadership Team at the Perse School in Cambridge.
Outside of school James enjoys singing, travelling through France (he’s a linguist by training), and doing his best to keep up with his two children on their adventures together.