I’m strategic director for student experience at Samworth Church Academy – a 1,170-pupil secondary school in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.

Part of my role, which is equivalent to vice principal, is to oversee a mix of online and face-to- face intervention for pupils designated as needing catch up support.

I manage a team of part-time staff who work exclusively as catch-up tutors. Together, they make up the equivalent of one full-time role for each of the three core subject areas – science, maths and English.

More demands

We decided to use our catch-up funding to build our own team of part-time teachers, after learning about the effectiveness of one-to-one and small group catch-up teaching in EEF research.

During lockdown, staff supported students exclusively online in one-to-one and small group sessions. From September 2020 this support moved back into the classroom, but as the second spike of the pandemic began to emerge, we shifted to becoming a ‘mixed economy’, with around 65% of support provided in classrooms and 35% online. We currently expect the proportion of online sessions to increase further as we go along.

Online does give us more flexibility in the way we deliver our catch-up learning. We can fit our support around times that are mutually convenient for staff and pupils, including Saturday mornings or weekday evenings. Some of our tutors have used the Bramble live online teaching platform to provide online learning support, which places more demands on learners compared to using Teams. There’s scope to create interactive and engaging lessons that are more reflective and dynamic.

That’s largely down to the ‘interactive whiteboard’, on which it’s possible to display lesson content and provide a focus for teacher and students alike. There’s also the facility to write notes and annotate lesson materials, such as science diagrams. This all helps to convey the sense that sessions are taking place in a classroom environment.

Attendance and behaviour for these online sessions has been good, and we’re certainly seeing fewer cases of students ‘being present, but not present’.

A question of attitude

The contrast between online teaching during the first lockdown and towards the end of the December was marked. During the first lockdown our online offer was very improvised, but we learned as we went along and improved our skills very quickly. Colleagues who felt they needed support were pointed towards confident online teachers, and we shared online resources that would help them.

Starting in September, we ran training sessions that looked at how the remote technology could be used effectively, sharing techniques and practice that would help our teaching staff and reinforce the school’s expectations of what these catch-up sessions ought to achieve.

What we’ve found from our experiences of the past few months is that effective remote teaching isn’t really an issue of skill; our teachers have been easily able to transfer their classroom skills to the online world, with just a few tweaks needed to make their approach more suited to one-to-one and small group situations. It’s more a question of attitude, and ensuring that staff are able and willing to embrace the opportunities remote teaching can open up for our students.

Our moves into online teaching have involved some challenges. The teachers have been able to confidently adapt their delivery technique to live online teaching, but have expressed concerns about what to do in the event of any concerns they have around student welfare or safeguarding.

We’ve given several colleagues support in this area, and endeavoured to set out a clear reporting process.

Device availability

By far the biggest issue with moving our catch-up support online, however, has been ensuring that enough pupils have the technological capability to access the sessions. Many pupils in Samworth Church Academy’s catchment are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and there’s a sizeable minority who don’t have access to a device of their own.

At the height of lockdown, we received requests for packs of printed lesson resources from 110 students because they couldn’t get online. And yet, broadband connectivity per se has never been the issue – in disadvantaged households, the real problem is a lack of devices. Students may not be able to get exclusive use of a family’s sole device at the point where they need it, for example.

That 110 figure eventually came down to 85, as we managed to acquire some laptops through the government’s scheme and bought some additional units ourselves. At the time of writing, however, around 70 students are still receiving our printed resource packs – we want to get that number to below 50.

We’re now seriously considering streaming all of our lessons, so that students who cannot attend school won’t miss out. The next step for us is to therefore seamlessly integrate the technology we’ve thus far been using for catch-up into the rest of the school day.

We’ve enjoyed using Teams so far, but are conscious the next step for us will involve making more extensive use of what other live online learning platforms are able to provide.

The view from the front

Tara Stirland is a catch-up science teacher working mainly with Y10 students at Samworth Church Academy. She supports around 30 pupils identified by the science department as needing additional support to help them catch up on their learning.

Tara teaches these pupils in small groups of between two and six. During lockdown, Tara was supporting the students remotely using Bramble. With the reopening of schools in September, Tara returned to the school to deliver face-to-face support, but found herself spending increasingly more time on remote learning as the term progressed, as a growing number of students became unable attend the face-to-face sessions due to self- isolation.

In Tara’s view, however, the remote online learning was, in many ways, more effective than the face-to-face sessions. “We had real success with the online learning approach during lockdown,” she says. “I found that we could actually engage more with the children, [and] there were fewer distractions, such as room changes. It allowed the students to be much more focused.”

Tara believes that the school’s mix of remote and face-to- face support since the pandemic took hold proved to be very effective. “Some people still perceive online learning to be not as good as face-to-face, but in many cases it’s actually just as good, or even better. I’ve seen what some of my students have got from it. I can see what they’re doing on the screen, and I love the fact that they can listen again to sessions via recordings, and also search for particular topics. Some students really prosper with this type of learning.”

Next steps

Insights into live online tutoring have been published in a new white paper from Bramble. ‘Getting the most out of live online tutoring: Insights from half a million hours’ can be downloaded here; for more information about the Bramble platform, visit bramble.io

Chris Vallance is strategic director for student experience at Samworth Church Academy – a role that involves management of the academy curriculum, intervention programmes and careers provision.