The remote learning legal duty for schools: unpacking the government’s direction

Last week the government published a temporary continuity direction under the coronavirus act 2020, which states that all state-funded school age children must be provided with “immediate access to remote education” should they miss school due to coronavirus. It comes into force on 22 October and is a legal duty, which has been questioned by some school leaders, who feel that guidance would be more appropriate than a legal directive at this stage.

What does this mean for schools?

Firstly what does the government mean by ‘remote education’? The full good practice guide defines ‘remote education’ within the new legislative direction as:

“education provided to a registered pupil who does not attend at school”

The tenor of the guide is that schools will be teaching online but it does recognise that this may be through either live or recorded lessons, and it also recognises that there will be significant challenges for some students getting access to remote learning. It talks about the use of smartphones and email and of both physical and virtual textbooks.

Recent comments by the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, may be reassuring. She told school leaders that they are not expected to provide a “full on-screen taught programme” for absent pupils. Her remarks were made to an academy trust leaders online conference, reported by Schools Week, and may give schools welcome leeway for manoeuvre in their responses to the situation.

However, there is a clearer steer on content, as a result of this week’s publication by Ofsted of its first snapshot of the pilot ‘visits’ it ran in September. The report covers the findings of 121 pilot visits to schools that volunteered to take part. A key finding that is causing the chief inspector concern is that remote learning was not always aligned to the regular curriculum.

According to Spielman, “If we expect many children to find themselves at home in term time once or even more often this year, for possibly a fortnight at a time, they must not lose the progression that a strong, well-sequenced curriculum brings. Without that structure, remote education becomes more about filling time than about effective learning.”

Potential issues

Digital inequalities
A blind spot in the guide is around digital inequalities (an absolutely critical area that we discuss in more depth, along with strategies schools can use to deal with it, in this blog post). The guide doesn’t have a section that explicitly addresses the sheer reality of the current situation for many schools – that in order to comply, as they were doing in lockdown, they will have to provide packs of resources either to be picked up from school or delivered to homes, with all the practical challenges that entails. 

In addition, the DfE also updated its guidance last week on how schools can access technology to support disadvantaged children who are “otherwise unable to access remote education”. A school that is limiting attendance by operating a rota model or that has fewer than 15 children self-isolating with covid-19 symptoms cannot access free laptops or devices from the government.

Primary pupils and screen time
A further issue is that much of the government guidance seems more geared towards a secondary school audience. It doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that prolonged screen time can be difficult for primary pupils to maintain and is often something parents are already working to avoid, so for some schools this has generated some resistance from parents. While it is possible to plan things that require little to no use of devices, the wording of the guidance is not explicit on this. 

Diversity and choice
More generally, there is a sense that the directive fails to capture the wide range of platforms, tools and approaches that are being used for remote learning in a combination of ways, both synchronous and asynchronous. Take a look at our blended learning resource page and there’s a snapshot of some of the tools that can be used, from simple systems such as Purple Mash to complete systems such as Google Classroom. We’ve seen schools and individual teachers show immense resourcefulness and creativity in using the tools they have access to in putting the core principles of remote learning into practice, such as community, teacher presence, engagement with peers and student/teacher dialogue. 

Since March the context for remote learning / blended learning, has been constantly shifting. It will continue to do so (see our blog post, Back to school: what you need to know about DfE and Ofsted remote learning expectations, from just a couple of weeks ago, for evidence of this!) This changing context, and the diversity of the remote learning landscape, needs to be reflected in the guidance offered to schools.

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