A digital strategy to support pupils and staff during COVID-19 and beyond

Tom Campbell, chief education officer of Greenwood Academies Trust, talks about responding to the government’s coronavirus guidelines and the new education landscape

Three years ago at Greenwood Academies Trust, we set out to design and implement an ambitious new digital strategy across our 35 academies in the Midlands and the East of England. Our aim was to further support our commitment to providing a high-quality education by being the sector leader in using technology to overcome key educational challenges. This includes improving pupil outcomes, access and inclusion, training and CPD, and staff wellbeing and workload.

We wanted to help prepare our pupils for the future, though we never imagined we were also preparing our school community to be able to continue their learning and teaching during a global health pandemic.

Investing in quality

We started with a vision in mind. We wanted the strategy to be scalable, secure, accessible for everyone, transparent, and demonstrate its clear value for money. With this in mind, we identified four strands of work we needed to support: an Education Network (for teaching and learning resources), Business Systems (operations systems), Innovative Educators (CPD) and an Analytics Platform (data management). We then developed a clear business case to secure buy-in from the rest of the Senior Leadership Team and looked for digital support systems that had been tried and tested in the context of education. We also invested in high-quality training for staff and had high expectations for them – we knew that all staff could master these technologies and that our pupils’ futures depended upon it.

Fast forward from 2017, when we started our digital strategy, to 20 March this year, when schools were formally closed, and we were proudly in a position to say, with confidence, we would be able to support our school community of 18,000 pupils and nearly 3,000 staff through our remote working and distance teaching and learning network.

We weren’t expecting to analyse the statistics on access and uptake in this way however, the data indicators we’ve gathered during lockdown paint an interesting picture. In the month of April, approximately 10,000 pupils – more than half of all our students across the primary and secondary academies – have regularly been using Microsoft Teams to access teacher-led engagement and ‘live’ content. This has helped them to maintain regular contact with their peers and teachers, as well as helped support their mental wellbeing. By the end of April, we had achieved approximately 253,000 hits through our ‘Airhead’ platform – the gateway for our online learning resources. This would suggest, impressively, by that point in time, every pupil across the Trust had accessed their online learning resources every day. This trend is continuing.

Without question, this is phenomenal engagement, especially taking into account the recent report from The Sutton Trust which found that 22% of state school secondary school students were accessing online learning every day, versus 57% of those in private schools.

While we couldn’t have predicted the current or future education landscape, we can equip our pupils with the digital skills and access they need to succeed with the mindset of adapting to whatever changes the ongoing digital revolution, and the world, brings. That’s exactly what we’ve done.

“Now, more than ever, we need to provide the scaffolding to overcome the significant challenges faced by many pupils in gaining digital access, long-term security and opportunity”

Rethinking digital

While health, safety and wellbeing will top the list of priorities for every school in the country for the foreseeable future, many schools and trusts will be thinking about revitalising their digital offer so they’re better prepared for any future lockdown, or a changed societal and educational landscape that will likely embrace digital applications more widely. They may also be looking to better serve the needs of their more disadvantaged pupils, as lockdown has laid bare the digital divide faced by many families across the country.

Across Greenwood Academies Trust, we serve a high proportion of disadvantaged families and know, first-hand, the extent of some parents’ struggles to support their children during this difficult time. The use of technology has been important in the transition to a remote learning model and we have been providing virtual classes, downloadable resources and online support to facilitate this.

The majority of our families are likely be connected to broadband at some level, but the degree of connectivity will be challenging for our more rural or coastal communities. Understanding the needs of our community has been an important part of our response and digital strategy which is why, as a Trust, we have been trying to ease the pressure on families by loaning laptops to pupils and providing downloadable activities that can be completed offline, to reduce the financial burden of broadband or 4G connections.

For our parents and carers who are less familiar with technology, and perhaps lack the confidence to fully support their children with digital resources, we have also been providing online support and an IT help desk to remotely fix technical issues. While many of our online lessons are live, providing pupils with the continuity of interacting with their teachers and friends, we also recognise the importance of making daily contact with the parents of vulnerable children and disadvantaged families to not only ensure their welfare and wellbeing is supported, but also to make sure we aren’t adding any additional pressure at this already stressful time.

In developing our digital strategy, we knew that at least 95 percent of our parents and carers own a mobile phone as we regularly communicate with them via text. That said, not many of our parents will have access to a laptop at home but they will have access to some sort of smart device, like a PlayStation or tablet, which provide alternative ways to access our digital infrastructure and stay connected with the wider school community. Thinking laterally about the compatibility of the digital resources we are sharing with our pupils and parents has allowed us to be adaptive and meet the needs of our community, ensuring as much engagement and access to learning materials and online lessons as possible.

Planning is key

With 35 academies across four geographical regions, we are a large Trust, so a well-planned digital strategy with efficient implementation capabilities was prudent when we started our process. However, given current circumstances, I appreciate in the coming days and months it will be necessary to move significantly faster, and be even more adaptive.

A well-planned approach and comprehensive digital strategy will help support both pupils and staff through uncertain times, with long-term benefits beyond COVID-19. Prior to lockdown, we were already pleased to have excellent pupil and teacher engagement with the new systems, with teachers reporting reductions in their workload in terms of lesson planning, tracking data and more.

Aside from the benefits that come with a reduced workload, in lockdown, our systems have supported wellbeing by allowing for regular touch-points with staff across the Trust, as well as online social activities to boost morale and engagement with pupils. Trust-wide collaboration and communication have been steadily increasing since implementation; exponentially so as we have worked throughout lockdown using Microsoft Teams.

Now, more than ever, we need to provide the scaffolding to overcome the significant challenges faced by many pupils in gaining digital access, long-term security and opportunity. A strong digital strategy also enables a sense of community for staff, pupils and parents. As we start to phase pupils back into schools, we will continue to do that however possible, and will adapt to deliver a blended curriculum that works for both those pupils in school and those learning at home. Education will forever be changed by COVID-19. By continuously strengthening our digital offer, we are equipping pupils with the means to adapt to whatever the world brings their way.

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