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The profession’s plan B – What the COVID-era education resource Oak National Academy intends to do now

The principal of Oak National Academy, Matt Hood, looks back on the grassroots rescue effort’s dramatic expansion, and outlines its plans for the year ahead

  • The profession’s plan B – What the COVID-era education resource Oak National Academy intends to do now

Oak National Academy’s first team meeting took place on Good Friday 2020. The initial goal we set ourselves was ‘In eight days, can we get 180 lessons online and available to teachers before teaching resumes after the Easter holidays?’

This soon expanded out into a number of other questions and challenges. Could we find volunteer teachers to cover the widest possible range of subjects and year groups? Could we build a user-friendly online platform in that same timeframe – despite development projects of similar scale typically taking months, if not years to complete?

Moreover, could we tell people about it in time? Could we generate sufficient awareness around what we were doing in the time available to us?

A steady rhythm

In the event, we were overwhelmed by the hard work put in by teachers and other volunteers who seemingly materalised out of nowhere, as well the support we received from a range of pro bono partners, schools, publishers and edtech organisations. It was only through this collective endeavour that we were able to get that initial batch of lessons over the line.

With online projects like this, however, your attention soon turns to other things you’d like to do. We wanted to introduce content for students with SEND, make all lessons subtitled, host lessons in BSL. Managing these and other initiatives was a big challenge, but our volunteers and partners continued to contribute over the course of the next term, despite many having to contend with huge issues of their own.

At the most basic level, our job has been to help teachers, and make sure none of their pupils miss a lesson. We eventually got to the stage where we were producing lessons each week to a steady rhythm. We’d secured funding to cover our scaled-up activities until the end of term, and the working assumption was that we’d then close, having successfully acted as we did during a period of national crisis.

But we then came to consider whether there might be a case for extending the project. We visited schools, spoke to the DfE and found that there was interest in keeping Oak open for a further year – something I believe has since been borne out by the current situation, and the likelihood of continued disruption to schools over the coming months.

However, the context had changed. We heard that our provision would only be useful if we could inform schools about everything we were intending to teach in advance, and make all our resources available upfront. Since schools teach different curricula in different ways, they need the flexibility to use resources in a way that works for them, even the option to change them.

Hardest year ever

We therefore set about the task of writing down what every pupil from reception through to Y11 would learn, in the most flexible order possible, and recording every lesson in the resulting curriculum – just shy of 10,000 in total – before the start of September. We put out a call to make it happen, and were soon talking to around 900 people – teachers, QA volunteers, communications professionals – who had rallied round in support of teachers about to enter the hardest year they’ve ever faced. Having spent the summer creating those lessons, we were able to successfully get them out as the new term started.

I see our role over the next 12 months as providing teachers with resources they can use if and as they wish. Everything we provide is entirely free and completely optional – it’s an offer that’s there if you can make use of it. We’re ultimately hoping to lighten the load.

I’m a chair of governors at a school in Morcambe, and what we’ve done is look at both our curriculum and the Oak curriculum, and map both of them against each other. We’re now in a position where, if a class had to suddenly to switch to home learning in the middle of Y7 lesson series on geology, we could instantly roll out remote lessons closely aligned to what they were studying in class. Their teacher wouldn’t need to invest time themselves –
they’d be prerecorded
and ready to go.

That applies to Reception, right the way through to Y11. We’ve tried to make our curriculum as extensive and flexible as possible, so that elements can be moved around and swapped out as schools require. It won’t match precisely, but we believe it’s the best possible attempt we could have made, given the complications involved.

Lost learning

A number of settings may well find themselves running one school within their building, plus a second ‘remote school’ at the same time for any pupils who are self isolating, shielding or at home for other reasons. We view our contribution as a viable plan B. If your kids have to relocate to their homes, we’re ready to help keep their learning going, albeit in a slightly different format.

Our view is that this makes the system as a whole much more resilient than it was when this all started. We didn’t prepare for this. We didn’t know it was going to happen, but it’s our belief that the system is now in much better shape to deal with the challenges ahead, thanks to the generosity of all the volunteers who have helped their colleagues.

The diversity of learning experiences that schools will have to manage presents a tricky problem. They’ll have groups of pupils with vastly different learning experiences between them stretching back over months, and won’t know at first exactly what they’ll be faced with in terms of how much learning has been lost.

Tools and expertise

Based on the discussions I’ve had with my school’s governors and our head, the focus in those first couple of weeks will be on getting children back into routines and settling them, while also thinking hard about what kind of diagnostic formative assessments will be needed to try and understand where the pupils are, and the variations between them.

The thing is, though, schools are actually quite good at doing this. Teachers will often oversee very wide ability groupings – that’s certainly the case at my school – and will be used to teaching pupils who come to them at different starting points. Schools already possess the tools and expertise needed to deal with this – it’s just a case of identifying what those starting points are, and the extent to which there’s a risk that those variations between pupils might grow wider.

Finally, it’s worth noting that all of our resources are fully searchable, down to individual lessons. If you’re aware that a pupil is struggling with fractions, for example, there’s a way of providing them with what amounts to highly personalised homwork, by having them take a suitable Oak lesson – the resources are all there. This ability to pull out specific lessons and have pupils complete them as part of their homework could help schools start to tackle those knowledge gaps in a hyper-targeted way.

Beyond the lessons

Alongside the Oak lessons, we organised a remote activities club to help children during half term, and were able to pull in content submitted by the Scouts and UN, among others. We also held an assembly each week to give out important messages to pupils around the country with the help of some incredible guest speakers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle, astronaut Helen Sharman – and the Duchess of Cambridge, who caused an almighty spike in our data during the week she appeared…

Matt Hood is the Principal at Oak National Academy, a founder at Ambition Institute and chair of governors at Bay Leadership Academy in Morecambe; for more information, visit thenational.academy or follow @OakNational

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