A new legal duty for schools to provide remote education is impending. Tom Middlehurst sorts the myths from the facts

Next Thursday it will become a legal requirement to provide immediate remote learning for any individual, groups or cohorts of students who cannot attend school because of Covid-19. While the direction has been widely and rightly condemned as heavy-handed, it is about to become statutory nonetheless. Therefore it is crucial that we work with families over the coming weeks to manage expectations on all sides.

A key issue is that remote learning means different things to different people – and the first myth we need to dispel is that schools have to provide live lessons. Some parents, bolstered by certain sections of the commentariat, will expect exactly that. However, there is no mention of it in the guidance. Instead, it includes an ambition that students will have daily contact with teachers and that schools will use a range of tools to teach new material, set assignments and assess students.

Daily contact may be through online learning platforms, where students are able to submit work and questions and have them marked and answered by their teacher. Likewise, online tools may include or solely be asynchronous resources, such as prerecorded videos and explanations, worksheets and exercises. Indeed, the government-funded Oak National Academy curriculum is entirely asynchronous.

The accompanying pressure of the new legal direction is not helpful

The second possible source of contention is the headline use of the word “immediate”. The Department for Education has confirmed this means schools will need to provide remote learning for students the first full day they are unable to attend school, but there is acknowledgement that some will be unable to deliver their full curriculum remotely overnight. So it is important that parents and students understand that full remote education won’t necessarily happen instantly. A phased approach may be needed, and providing a pack of resources is sufficient – at least initially – so schools may want to consider having these ready.

Next, we know that schools – particularly those in disadvantaged communities – continue to report significant barriers to accessing remote learning. Schools are already working with families to identify those barriers and doing what they can to remove them. Further support from government has been announced. Schools should ensure they are accessing their full entitlement, but online remote learning may never be fully achievable, and the expectation is that students without access should be supported with printed resources.

As to remote curriculum, it is expected to be the equivalent length of a normal timetable, reflect the ambitions of the school curriculum, and include a range of subjects each day.

How this is achieved is at the discretion of school leaders, and might include a range of independent tasks with suggested timings for completion.

The direction places a legal duty on schools to provide remote learning only for reception to year 11 students who are unable to attend school due to Covid-19. It does not legally apply to students who are absent for other reasons, including non-Covid related illness, although schools may of course choose to extend their remote learning offer to them.

Finally, if a student is able to attend school and has not been told to remain at home, they have no legal right to remote learning under the direction. Media headlines may encourage parents to think they have a choice between school and home learning. This is not the case.

The next few weeks are likely to be even more challenging with rising infection rates and the prospect of having to provide remote learning to more pupils. The accompanying pressure of the new legal direction is not helpful, but by managing expectations now we can make life easier for everyone and help schools to keep all the plates spinning as we work our way through this next phase.