The 7 questions everyone asks about online schools
Where does the social side, sport and extra-curricular come in to virtual education, and what about a timetable and exams? We tackle the big questions about online schools.
Interest in homeschooling was already peaking before the pandemic, but the past year has seen demand for virtual schools skyrocket. Parents who would never have previously considered online schooling are taking the leap and the concept is gaining traction.
Hugh Viney (below), headmaster of Minerva’s Virtual Academy, told me that he’s now getting upwards of 50 parental enquiries a week and reckons his online school will be four times its current size come September.
But for many parents, leaving conventional education to embrace schooling online is a massive step and there are some big hurdles to overcome first. So, we caught up with Hugh to tackle the elephants in the room about online schooling, and find out which families could benefit most from it.
1/ Will my kids miss out on the social side of school?
For many parents, the idea of kids learning at home and not physically alongside their peers is off-putting, but there are a few points to consider. Firstly, as we all know, not all kids flourish at school. Hugh says one of the main drivers behind Minerva’s Virtual Academy is mental health. For some kids, the social anxiety, and possibly even bullying, that comes with school life stops them from realising their potential. Once the social pressure has been taken off, these kids can start to enjoy learning again.
Secondly, one of the four pillars of Minerva’s ethos is the school community, so kids have a weekly online school assembly, where they’re encouraged to talk about their achievements and their efforts are celebrated. There’s also extra-curricular group work, wellbeing classes and live lessons. Kids at Minerva can’t hide at the back of class, and even those not comfortable with speaking up in an online lesson are encouraged to type their input in order to interact. The class sizes of no more than 20 and the security of remote learning means some kids feel safer to contribute and put their hands up – no shrinking violets here.
Once a week Minerva’s students do “World Changers” – group projects that have seen them work with institutions including the UN and the International Space Station Education Trust to work together to solve problems and generate new ideas. The focus is on learning for its own sake, creative thinking, problem solving and working collaboratively.
2/ Will they play any sport?
So online schools can’t replicate the team sports of conventional schools, but instead they can encourage students to join local clubs and celebrate their successes when they do. Mentors, who are the one-to-one tutors that meet with Minerva students every two weeks, encourage sports outside of school and set goals for their charges to give them the nudge they need to take part.
Secondly, it’s actually because of sporting excellence that some kids join Minerva. Hugh has had divers and Olympic swimmers using Minerva’s online tutors in the past, which is also pretty inspiring for the kids learning alongside them.
Where competition can be virtual, like E-Sports (gaming), there’s scope for competition, and one day Hugh even hopes for inter online school E-sports leagues.
3/ How can they learn without being in a classroom?
The virtual learning platform and one-to-one mentor support at Minerva means students’ progress is tracked at every step and because of the tech, parents can get a regular update on their kids progress, rather than having to wait for a twice-yearly parents’ evening.
This isn’t an alternative to the national curriculum – students at Minerva are preparing for conventional GCSEs, Btec and A-Levels and take them at local test centres at the same time as other students.
Another point that Hugh makes is that he believes kids are developing life skills that set them up well for university – learning autonomously and organising their own time. They also learn to communicate with adults and peers online, a skill that is clearly going to be well tested in the post-COVID era of working remotely.
4/ Is there any structure to the day?
Firstly, there are scheduled live lessons at Minerva – eight one hour lessons a week in an online group class with a teacher. Then there are the fortnightly mentor sessions, extra curricular activities like art and film club, a weekly wellbeing session and a whole school assembly.
Outside of this, kids can undertake their learning when it suits them via their bespoke Virtual Learning Platform, so a night owl might start at midday and finish at 9pm while an aspiring athlete might take the afternoon out of school to train.
5/ Is online school only for kids who don’t like school?
Online schooling can work for kids and families for a number of reasons and Hugh has seen growth in some surprising sectors – for example kids of expats who have previously travelled back to the UK for schooling who now want to avoid taking so many flights in the COVID and post-COVID world.
Or there’s super bright kids who overtake their classmates and want to learn at their own pace and not be held back in taking exams that they could do early.
Or there are talented athletes and actors for whom the conventional school timetable doesn’t work and they still want GCSEs and A-Levels but need an education that works around their schedule.
Finally, there are kids for whom their mental health or a physical disability might stop them from being able to flourish in a traditional school setting.
6/ I was not a fan of homeschooling during COVID and this is no different, right?
Firstly, 10% of parents actually emerged from homeschooling with a happier child, free from the stress they felt at school and enjoying learning like never before. So, making online learning a longer term plan was a no-brainer.
Secondly, an online school like Minerva is a very different animal to a traditional school providing online learning. Minerva has a virtual learning platform which takes kids through their GCSE subjects (at the moment it’s just Year 9 and 10, with Year 11 available from September) through audio, visual and textual learning with quizzes, tests and gamified activities. The intelligent system is the future of school as far as Hugh is concerned, COVID or not, because it tracks a child’s progress and attainment in an entirely transparent way that students, mentors and parents can access.
Likewise, the tech for online live lessons means a group of kids can interact with the material on their own screens, which might suit some kids more than being taught from the front of a classroom. Also, lessons are recorded so kids can replay them afterwards if they need to review what they’ve learnt (aka, weren’t listening first time round…).
7/ If we can’t afford home tutoring, can we afford this?
Minerva charges £6,500 for a full year at its Virtual Academy, with termly and monthly payment plans available. Hugh regards his school as offering a quality, private school education at a fifth of the price.
Tempted? Minerva currently has an early bird deal fixed at this year’s prices – £5,900 per year – for parents who sign up and pay a deposit by the end of May.