Can online schools solve the post-Covid attendance crisis?

Supporters say virtual classrooms offer a second chance for children who can’t cope in a traditional setting – but others fear they are just pushing vulnerable learners further out of sight

Being in school is how signs of hunger, poverty, abuse, and poor mental health are picked up and dealt with

In total, 22.3 per cent of pupils missed more than one in 10 sessions in the last academic year, roughly double the proportion in 2018-19. Of disadvantaged pupils, nearly two in five are now classed as “persistently absent”.

A Centre for Social Justice report this week concluded that Covid has well and truly shattered the “contract of trust” between schools and parents. But it’s not just pupils bunking off a few more lessons.

In 2021-22, nearly 100,000 children were “missing education”, those not registered at school or not receiving a suitable education outside of school. Data shows another 86,200 pupils were home educated this spring – up 50 per cent on pre-pandemic.

Councils have a duty to provide education for pupils missing from mainstream education. While they have been wary of using online schools in these circumstances for all but the very occasional stopgap, a new government accreditation scheme launched in March last year is changing things.

Two providers have been accredited so far after they were inspected and approved by Ofsted. They now appear on Get Information About Schools, and have their own school unique reference number. At least two more are preparing for upcoming Ofsted preapproval visits.

The scheme is viewed as a “gamechanger” for online school operators, who see it as a path to not just being more widely used, but also to becoming a more permanent solution for school-refusing children.

Providers of “full-time” education – which isn’t legally defined, but equates to roughly more than 18 hours a week – to five or more pupils have to be registered with Ofsted.

Under the accreditation scheme, as well as Ofsted’s pre-approval check, providers will also undergo routine Ofsted inspections with the same 12-notice period and rigorous class observation of traditional schools.

The Department for Education sets the accreditation standards based on the independent schools inspection framework – only without the onerous physical requirements such as sink-to-toilet ratios.

TCES National Online School student credit Chris Pascoe

Councils sign up to online schools

The first full-time online school to get Ofsted’s approval last month, Sophia High School, currently only has three students fully-funded by local authorities, through education, health and care plans.

But the online school says it has now signed contracts with Northumberland, Sheffield and Surrey Councils to take on board a number of their school refusing and excluded children. Sophia will appear on Sheffield and Surrey’s official list of alternative providers – a recommendation to schools that they can place children there.

Councils are “sharing [that] their demands for online provision are skyrocketing,” said Sophia chief executive Melissa McBride. From January, around a third (50) of Sophia’s learners will be UK-based.  The councils working with Sophia refused multiple requests for comment.

But Sheffield South East MP Clive Betts said he was “worried” as schools “virtually next door to each other have very different attitudes to exclusion” and online schools would give high-excluding schools an “easy way out”.

“Instead of having to provide an education, they can just say ‘oh well, they’re studying online’. “

Minerva Virtual Academy, which claims to be the UK’s fastest growing online school, is preparing for Ofsted’s inspection this month as part of its accreditation bid.

So far, only 15 of its 500 learners are funded by the state, through what its chief executive Hugh Viney describes as a “collaboration with forward thinking state schools who realise their kids are not getting on, and appreciate us as an alternative”.

In these instances, the pupil is normally still enrolled at their mainstream school and the provision is paid for by councils and schools in ten week “temporary” blocks.

But Viney believes it can be “the perfect” long-term solution for some children too – and accreditation is the “game changer” that means “councils can more freely recommend us”.

Essex council is looking for a new provider to run an online school which acts as a “safety net” to ensure children awaiting a school place are getting education. However, it will be expanded to cover all pupils awaiting placements, and the new provider must be accredited.

Hugh Viney chief executive of Minerva virtual academy

Not-in-school pupils push demand

All three of the councils signed up with Sophia High have soaring numbers of children not in school. In Northumberland, for example, the number of permanently excluded pupils in alternative provision (AP) in September 2023 was 144, double the number in 2021.

Last year, the council failed to meet its legal duty to secure full-time “suitable provision” by day six of their exclusion for one in four of the youngsters. With many councils harbouring huge ‘high needs’ funding deficits, the cost benefits are also likely to be attractive.

Viney says not having a physical building and the associated overheads means his school is a “cost effective model”.

Its fees are £7,500 a year, which is not much lower than the £8,000 the Institute for Fiscal Studies says state schools got last year from government to educate a pupil. However, they are much lower than the £56,000 average cost of private special schools.

A placement at TCES National Online School, which caters for pupils with special needs and recently become the second accredited online provider, is just over £25,000.

The online school has 100 pupils on roll at any one time and all the teaching is 1:1, with placements lasting an average of 28 weeks (£660 a week), all funded by councils. One to one therapeutic support is also provided.

But John Barneby, chief executive of Oasis Community Learning, warned online schools “can’t become a way of off-rolling the most challenging students, or be just about reducing costs”.

John Barneby
John Barneby chief executive of Oasis Community Learning

‘They’re still hidden from sight’

Covid lockdowns gave most families and schools their first real taste of remote education. Viney says while most “hated” it, for a minority it led to an “awakening” that “their child was happier learning online”.

Half of Minerva’s pupils use it because “their previous school has not been able to support their mental health needs”, he said, adding this is something “exacerbated by social media”.

But education commentator Ben Newmark said the decline in youngsters’ mental health seems to correlate with increased screen time, questioning whether more screen time was the answer.

“Sometimes we make this assumption that school is making them stressed,” he added. “However, schools have been around in the same format for over 100 years.”

Education consultant Charlotte Davies added that “studying at home is also just avoiding the school system” rather than “resolving the underlying issues” of why a pupil might be refusing school.

Some senior Ofsted inspectors are also understood to be concerned about the safeguarding implications of online school learners not having their cameras turned on during lessons.

Minerva pupils require “special dispensation” to have their cameras off. But Viney admits it’s “very hard to police cameras on” especially with “self-conscious teens”.

Janet Doherty, headteacher of Manchester Hospital School, said “even though somebody is still marking them present on a register … those pupils are [still] hidden from sight.”

Barneby added that: “Sadly for many, being in school is how signs of hunger, poverty, abuse, and poor mental health are picked up and dealt with.”

Minerva also only offers four hours of live lessons a day, with three hours for self-study where pupils are left to their own devices.

“The danger is that those young people who actually need more support, more intervention, and more guidance may be forced out of mainstream schools and further towards the edges of society,” Barneby added.

However, McBride claims learners who were “broken with anxiety” when they first enrolled have “gained the confidence” to return to their mainstream school months later.

William was enrolled by his mum Susan Ballantyne in Minerva two years ago when he was in year eight. He had been “badly bullied” and missed six months of schooling. She paid the fees herself.

But after complaining to the local government ombudsman over how no AP had been offered for her son , Plymouth council was ordered to pay her back the £14,800.

William remains dual registered with his mainstream school, part of Westcountry Schools Trust, which carries out “laid back and friendly” termly home visits. William’s EHCP is still being finalised, but Plymouth has already agreed that Minerva will be his education provider until he is 16.

A council spokesperson said it only commissions online schools “in extremely exceptional situations where this is required”.

Sarah Martin-Denham, associate professor of Care and Education at Sunderland University, said there is “no reason not to offer” online schooling “if [it] works” for those families and is “good quality … For some, it could be a pathway back into a school.”

Melissa McBride chief executive of Sophia High School

‘Schools are more than just for learning’

But Newmark said expansion of online learning should only be “in response to genuine pupil need, and not at moments of crisis or because parents are unhappy with a particular aspect of their child’s school”.

He is concerned that sending out the “unconscious message that if your child is not finding school easy, there is another option” will result in the current school system “continuing to be impoverished”.

“Schools are more than just places where learning happens – they have an important social and community focus too, and children who do not attend do not benefit from this,” he added, saying they are “potentially very dangerous” and should “remain second best to school instruction”.

Online schools run student newspapers, assemblies and after school clubs to try and nurture that sense of community. Viney runs Minerva’s weekly young entrepreneurs club himself.

But online schools also struggle with the more nuts and bolts elements of learning. While they must provide a “full curriculum or represent a child’s main or only source of education” to get accreditation, Newmark questioned how effectively sex education, sports, music and practical subjects requiring specialist equipment can be taught remotely.

Rosanne Barron, an online science and maths teacher for British Online School and Oxford Education Online admits science experiments can be “tricky”. She uses “virtual laboratories” or teaches simplified versions of experiments which can be done at home.

However, assessment has been her “biggest challenge… You can’t just print off and hand out a work sheet and then take it in again”. 

One workaround could be hybrid schools. Pupils would attend in-person at least one day a week for practical subjects and sporting and social activities, while learning remotely on other days.

But Davies says online learning is “inappropriate” until the age of eight because “the child is not capable of abstract thought”.

Sophia Online takes pupils from age four. Kings Interhigh, another online school, accepts pupils aged seven.

While most online school providers are small companies, King’s Interhigh’s parent company is Inspired Education Holdings Limited, which also runs a chain of over 100 traditional schools across 24 countries.

Online teacher Rosanne Barron

Where next?

The DfE says 21 out of 25 eligible online school providers have applied for accreditation, which it says “will give greater confidence to parents, carers and pupils accessing education through this route”.

However government guidance still makes clear schools should only consider remote education “as a last resort” and when attendance is “not possible”. Any “exceptional cases” for online learning, such as being affected by a SEND or mental health issue, should also include a “plan to reintegrate [the pupil] back to school”.

For  McBride, the accreditation focus and related market changes are a “major signal for the future of education”.

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