Ofsted’s remote education research report: key points and debate

Last week Ofsted published a remote education research report, based on interviews, focus groups, questionnaires and a literature review, all carried out between the summer and end of 2020. It’s a substantial and necessary piece of work that we welcome. It contains a wealth of findings from school leaders and teachers and it’s refreshing that it references the research that’s already taken place in the field while acknowledging that less is known about the school sector when it comes to remote learning.

Having these findings collated gives schools an opportunity to see a national picture and value in a variety of approaches, especially given the encouraging emphasis on flexible solutions rooted in evidence of what works. School leaders will also be pleased that their immense efforts since last March have been recognised.

The report’s themes reflect all the issues and aspects we have experienced in the past 10 months of supporting schools. Here we want to highlight just a few areas from the report that are particularly noteworthy or interesting, and we do recommend that you take a look at the full report, as there’s a lot of useful content within it.

Definitions

Remote learning, blended learning, online learning…definitions are always tricky and it’s helpful to have some sensible working definitions, particularly the point that remote education is “more than just education delivered through digital methods”. Briefly, Ofsted suggests:

  • Remote education: any learning that happens outside of the classroom, with the teacher not present in the same location as the pupils. This includes both digital and non-digital remote solutions.
  • Digital remote education: remote learning delivered through digital technologies, often known as online learning.
  • Blended learning: a mix of face-to-face and remote methods. 

The digital divide

According to the report, by the autumn term, most of the schools had overcome ‘digital divide’ issues in relation to provision of devices. This was often because school leaders were proactive in sourcing laptops from the local community or were providing non-digital solutions for pupils without devices, such as worksheets.

This is quite a contrast to the findings of the most recent Sutton Trust survey. It found that in the first week of the January 2021 lockdown, just 10% of teachers overall report that all their students have adequate access to a device for remote learning while 17% report that more than 1 in 5 of their students don’t have such access. This is not substantially different to the situation in last spring’s lockdown. Just 5% of teachers in state schools report that all their students have a device, compared to 54% at private schools. Almost half (47%) of state school senior leaders report their school has only been able to supply half of their pupils or fewer with the laptops they have needed. In the most deprived schools, 56% of leaders report they haven’t been able to help half or more of their pupils who needed devices. This compares with 39% at the most affluent state schools.

However, it is significant that the Ofsted report does acknowledge that the digital divide is about more than devices. There are additional issues that need to be considered alongside device provision:

  • Device appropriateness – mobile phones and tablets were generally considered a poorer tool for accessing and making use of content than a laptop
  • Poor quality or no internet connection 
  • Sharing with siblings – live lessons in a timetabled approach are more problematic in this scenario because pupils may not always have access to a device at times that align with a predetermined timetable
  • Availability of parental support – particularly for primary-aged children
  • An appropriate environment for learning – the physical, social or emotional environment pupils find themselves in under remote conditions may not always be conducive to equality of access to remote provision

These are issues that come up time and again with the schools we support and in the teacher interviews on the BlendEd site. For example, Anthony Lee, teacher of IT and computing at Whickham School and Sports College discusses the issue of parents needing the family device for work and multiple children needing it for school work and the pressure on wifi and how it slows down if the whole family are trying to work and learn online. He adds that they learned that it is better to schedule school work over the week rather than by the day as it gives more breathing space, especially for students who may not be able to get online until the evening, and allows them to organise their own time within the week.

And, of course, not all remote learning has to be digital and the report offers some examples of how schools have approached off-screen learning.

The challenges of blended learning

The changing context in the autumn term from remote learning to a mix of face to face and remote methods due to much more teaching happening in the classroom following the return of all pupils to school but also needing to have provision for children, which might be one, a few, or whole bubbles, isolating at home. This was found to be harder and increased teacher workload.

It is encouraging that the report highlights where blended learning approaches have helped, especially through great use of tools for dialogue and the potential for re-engaging disaffected learners.

“A few of the leaders, however, did explain that their schools were using blended learning approaches to get around this issue. For them, removing the friction between the physical classroom and learning from home was the main priority. In these cases, a versatile online platform was central to the blended approach. The leader of one school explained that a platform like this allowed a teacher to be video-recorded and the lesson streamed (live or pre-recorded) to pupils situated in another classroom or at home. This ensured that pupils who were not in the physical classroom would have access not only to the full content of the lesson but also digital tools to facilitate real-time scaffolding and feedback. This included touch-screen technology for posing immediate questions to the teacher, the use of chat-boxes or the ‘raising hand’ feature of video meeting software. Another leader explained how a blended approach was helping them to re-engage disaffected learners, particularly those who are anxious or overstimulated in a physical classroom setting, by allowing them to stream lessons from the school’s on-site inclusion centre.”

Teacher confidence

The report notes YouGov research finding that three-fifths of the teachers responding were quite confident that they were providing a high-quality education through their school’s remote education solution when this was needed and  just over half were confident their solution was sustainable for the future. This is very positive and echoes our experience of rapid adaptation to the new learning medium by teachers.

Curriculum alignment

From the interviews, the greatest barrier for schools looking to use digital platforms and tools in the first lockdown was a lack of investment in digital technology in the sector in the previous 10 years.  “We were unprepared,” said one participant.  Where the transition to remote education was easiest, it built upon existing provision.

These leaders felt that it did not matter whether the experience uses synchronous or asynchronous (or mixed) approaches. What was important was that pupils could receive the same curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and level of socialisation to support their learning. However, this is not a quick fix solution. These schools had been using digital technology for numerous years before the pandemic. Leaders had already invested in the technical capacity and staff and pupil training required to reach the scale of implementation in this blended learning approach. What these examples do show is that curriculum equity can be managed for the long-term, once solutions become more mature.

This really drives home the importance of schools having a digital strategy. It’s a topic we covered in our most recent Bett talk and you can find the key points and links (including to the Naace Self Review Framework audit tool, which now includes learning beyond school. It’s a way to audit all aspects of your strategy from CPD, resources, teaching and learning, safeguarding) in the handout

Pedagogy

The report notes that “training staff to use technology came first, pedagogy came later” in most cases but that there was now a recognition that pedagogical training was needed. A few schools had developed resources, such as a ‘pedagogical practice newsletter’, to share good practice across their departments or their multi-academy trust’s subject communities. Several said that they had developed their training on pedagogical approaches from freely external video lessons and materials available from the Education Endowment Foundation. Some schools have used regular staff training to enhance teachers’ application of pedagogical principles in a remote lesson (for instance, where to stand, improving exposition or use of white boards) to increase their confidence in front of the camera. This has subsequently led to an increase in the number of live or pre-recorded lessons being delivered by teaching staff to their pupils.

Adaptations to teaching remotely included:

  • A closer focus on verbal explanations and exposition, and presenting concepts in ‘bitesize’ segments, so that pupils could concentrate for short bursts of time and teachers could check pupils understood the learning points regularly
  • Shortening the length of lessons to aid pupils’ concentration spans and to reduce screen time when working at home
  • Using a variety of different ways of presenting information, although still making sure they are an appropriate fit to the task; for example, modelling on a whiteboard, using videos, teacher demonstrations of practical work to introduce and reinforce key concepts, using dual coding (combining words and visuals such as graphics and images) to present ideas and concepts
  • Ensuring time for pupils to practise what they have learned, for example through independent work or pupil discussion
  • Avoiding open-ended tasks that can potentially overwhelm pupils (just as in the classroom, most pupils will be novices in the content being taught) but providing opportunities to scaffold concepts

Two of the six principles for blended learning we promote in the BlendEd website are ‘belonging’ and  ‘teacher presence’ and this is recognised in the report with the note that ‘Most leaders thought that seeing and hearing their teacher and peers is important for pupils, particularly for their well-being and engagement with their work.”

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