As a parent of a teen facing her final year of GCSE study after months out of school – often with patchy teaching – I’m feeling decidedly nervous. Although the Government has promised to open schools in September, a new study says a lack of an effective track and trace system means this might not be safe. Adding to the chaos, a dreaded ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 may also lead to unpredictable local or national lockdowns. It’s not just parents like me who are concerned. As Scottish children mourn their disappointing GCSE grades, a new study, Life After Lockdown, from the nation’s leading youth programme NCS (National Citizen Service) has found that 67 per cent of teens aged 16-17 are worried about their education.
The result? More and more parents are looking for alternatives to traditional schools.
Across the UK, Google searches for the term’ online schools’ has risen by 625 per cent since this time last year. And this September, the Telegraph can reveal, a new entirely online, private secondary school – the Valenture Institute – will open in the UK. Valenture was founded in South Africa by education tech pioneer Robert Paddock. Dubbed the ‘Elon Musk of Education’, Paddock previously co-founded the online learning platform GetSmarter, which he sold for over £78million in 2017.
Founded just last September, Valenture already teaches children in South Africa, Australia, South Korea and the UAE, and will soon open in the US. Ambitiously, it aims to be teaching 100,000 students across the globe by 2030.
Valenture boasts an impressive chancellor in the form of Harvard Professor Rob Lue. One of the world’s foremost leaders online learning, Lue was the founding faculty director of HarvardX, Harvard’s university-wide online education programme. He is currently the Faculty Director of Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, where he is responsible for fostering innovative teaching techniques. Lue firmly believes that Valenture’s model of online learning is the future. “It’s gold standard learning,” he says.
Yet the vast majority of Valenture’s current intake opted for online teaching before the pandemic hit. So, what made them choose a virtual academy? Lue says, “We have some students that are very academically able. They don’t understand why it’s taking the rest of their class two weeks to be taught the same concept as they grasped right away. They want to work at an accelerated pace. “
He points out that there are also students whose parents were “digital nomads” and didn’t want to put their children into boarding schools.
“Other students are athletes or professional actors,” he says, “who are unable to fit into a regular school timetable. All they have to do is open their laptop, and they can learn anywhere.”
But there’s also a surprisingly large number of students, he says, “who might struggle with mental health so attending school regularly is a challenge. They may have social challenges and find making friends difficult.”
Mid-lockdown, Valenture commissioned research that found that a fifth of British parents said their secondary school children preferred home learning to school. In fact, as many parents said their children were worried about going back to school as excited. A shocking 14 per cent went so far as to claim their children “were full of dread” at the prospect. The most significant cause of anxiety by far was bullying – a quarter of the 2000 parents surveyed online said their children were being bullied at school. The positives of learning at home included children being able to learn at their own pace, a less stressful environment and less pressure to get the answers right in front of classmates.
While this may all sound futuristic, digital schools aren’t new. InterHigh, founded in 2005, is the leading online school in the UK with over 3,000 pupils studying in the UK and internationally. Stanford University in the US runs a $25 000-a-year virtual school. Harrow School has licensed its name for an online school while Eton College has launched EtonX. While not a school – yet – the platform offering online courses in such things as critical thinking, problem-solving and public speaking.
But the pandemic has certainly boosted interest in the virtual model. Gary Spracklen is Headmaster of The Prince of Wales School, a state primary in Dorset. A leader in thinking about digital education, he’s a former Digital Educator of the Year and a member of the UK government’s Department for Education’s ‘ETAG’ (Educational Technology Action Group). Spracklen says, ‘There has been an exponential growth in interest in and use of Edtech since the pandemic started. I’ve spent the past ten years trying to interest people in it, but now my phone never stops ringing. The Oak National Academy, an online school created by teachers during the pandemic, has also pushed the agenda forward.”
So how does an online school work? Valenture will charge £6,000 a year for GCSE study (years 10 and 11). While not cheap, this is about 60 per cent lower than average private school fees in the UK.
Students are taught by teachers with at least ten years’ experience. Lessons are delivered via a mix of live, timetabled lessons in virtual classrooms and pre-recorded classes.
Students study for international qualifications such as the IGCSE, and the aim is to help them get into the best universities around the world.
Classes typically start at 9am and finish between 1.30pm and 2.30pm. Live classes involve around 20 students and are 35 to 40 minutes long.
All students are given recordings of the classes, which means they can pause and rewind at any point if they don’t understand something. “That’s a definite advantage,” says Spracklen. “You can’t rewind your teacher in a classroom.”
Online classes will look familiar to those of us who have been forced to get to grips with Zoom during the pandemic. Students dial in and get to see their teacher as well as their classmates on screen. Imagine a family quiz or a drinks party with friends, minus the booze but with the laughs and conversation.
Roll call and attendance
But, I ask, how do parents know if their child is ‘at school’ in their bedroom or staring vacantly at TikTok videos? “We do take roll call,” laughs Lue. “Attendance is compulsory. Students have to attend 80 per cent of their classes, or they won’t be able to take their final exams.” And if your child is slacking off, you will soon get to hear of it.
At Valenture, each student has a weekly check-in with a personal mentor. This mentor is from a psychology or counselling background, and their job is to both provide pastoral care and also to ensure students are keeping up. Says Lue, “As a parent, you’ll never experience that surprise when you turn up to parent’s evening and discover your child is spending every lesson at the back, chatting.”
Traditionally, we think of online learning as passive – watching videos or having teachers who, says Lue, “just regurgitate information.” In contrast, Valenture offers what’s known as “high touch learning” with lessons learned from the “interactivity of gaming and the connectivity of social networks.”
Students engage with their peers for around 75 per cent of every lesson. They form ‘breakout groups’ to discuss different topics, and then present their ideas back to the larger class. They then get instant feedback from their teachers. This means, says Lue, that “engagement levels are extremely high”. He says, “It forces students to think critically about topics and gain the skills to become a good public speaker, which builds confidence.”
Valenture also prides itself on one unique touch – embedding the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into its whole curriculum. These goals cover global issues such as gender equality, world hunger and climate change. All pupils take an eight-week, compulsory course designed to “equip young people to make a difference in the communities they find themselves in,” says Lue. He says students are passionate about the topics and he even anticipates their making serious contributions to solving the world’s problems in future.
But can an online school, no matter how fancy its prospectus, really compare to its real-world rivals when it comes to learning? The answer appears to be yes. New research by The Education Endowment, a UK think tank, says online learning produces results equal to or better than traditional teaching methods. “The important thing is the quality of the teaching, not the way that teaching is delivered,” it says.
‘The teachers are phenomenal’
Nicole Kretzschmar, a physical therapist in South Africa, enrolled her 15-year-old daughter Savannah at Valenture when the school opened last January. She liked the focus on international qualifications as her daughter hopes to study in the US. And she is delighted that they made the leap to online before lockdown hit the country. “I was surprised at how excited Savannah was to join up immediately and start something so new,” Kretzschmar says. “I think the modernity of it all really excited her, and she has thrived. The teachers are the best I have ever encountered.”
She adds: “They and the mentors can ‘read’ a child very accurately in terms of what they need to keep them engaged.” Her daughter agrees. “”The teachers are phenomenal, and my mentor is amazing. I’ve found I also really prefer being able to do the work in my own time.”
Linda Woolf, 50, an HR director from London, has been considering switching her daughter Zoe, 14, from her London state secondary to Valenture. Woolf noticed how Zoe’s mood “markedly improved” when learning at home during the pandemic.
“She seemed happier and calmer,” she says. Woolf is tempted by Valenture because, she says, “I like that they can choose the best teachers regardless of where they live in the world. The checking up on the children and reporting back to parents is hugely valuable and teaching children to be independent learners is the holy grail. If they can learn how to learn, that’s half the battle.”
However, she adds, “Interaction is my main concern. I wonder if she might lose more from not being with her friends than she’d gain from being released from the misery of school?”
It’s a question many would ask. Research conducted by NCS found that 42 per cent of teens aged 16-17 years old are concerned about loneliness and 33 per cent about mental health. Spracklen agrees, saying, “Social interaction in the dining hall and playground are equally as important as academic education. It helps build a rounded individual,” But he adds, “That’s not to say these things can’t be delivered via an online model.”
Harrow online school asks pupils to take part in at least one real-life arts activity, a sporting activity and some kind of volunteering in their community. InterHigh offers virtual common-rooms and after-school clubs and offers real-world social events for UK pupils, including adventure weekends and school trips.
Kretzmer says, “I was initially concerned about moving to a platform with the physical social aspect removed, especially as Savannah is an only child. I’ve made extra effort to keep her busy with her friends, and now her friends are doing online schooling too, they spend every alternate week with each other and are having a ball. Within Valenture, her classes all have Whatsapp groups where they interact with each daily, outside of school.”
But even a school as devoted to online learning as Valenture has come to admit that children and young people will always yearn for real, personal contact with each other. In South Africa, Valenture is building ‘boutique campuses’ to ‘expand the Valenture Institute experience’. Here, virtual learning will be combined with in-person support and experiences with classmates. Working parents will also have “flexibility and peace of mind that their kids won’t be alone at home”. Plans for these boutique campuses include a grocery delivery service, a yoga studio, a gym and private study pods. The idea is for something similar to happen in the UK in the future.
This concept is close to Spracklen’s ideal school of the future – a ‘hybrid model’ in which students who need or want to can study online even in the state system, while bricks and mortar schools exist both for education and as social hubs, with facilities open to the community. “This way nobody is locked out of learning,” he says. “It can only be a positive move, and I welcome it.”