The longest established online school in the UK for kids 7-18 has seen interest rise exponentially since Covid. So what's all the fuss about?
You’ll find InterHigh on your computer screen. The UK’s longest-established online school, InterHigh teaches kids aged 7-18, before waving them off with their GCSES, A-levels and – for some of its pupils – places at university. COVID has given online learning a new credibility – frankly, what would we have done without it? – and InterHigh is a pioneer, having been started by a state school teacher Paul Daniell and wife Jacqueline back in 2005, who felt that the one-size-fits-all approach to learning was flawed and that online technology could help those children who were falling through the cracks.
If you dream of acres of playing fields and state-of-the-art DT buildings, stop reading now. The obvious weakness of any online school is, well, it’s online. So InterHigh is a niche offering and parents need to balance up the importance of the life skills taught on the hockey pitch, stage and in group activities versus an interactive learning programme that can strongly benefit those whose schedules prohibit them from attending regular school (hello elite child athletes and performers) or those for whom school is a place of struggle, bullying, over-rigidity or SEN challenges.
To the school’s credit, it doesn’t attempt to hide its inevitable shortcomings in this area but addresses them as much as possible – they are in talks with Sport England to create a more integrated sports curriculum, and the school currently mentor pupils into sports clubs and runs its own exercise classes. Optional online clubs in the afternoons (Art,Science, Chess, Mandarin and Latin and, in development, Arabic) offer the chance to expand interests and friendship groups beyond the classroom, and until COVID put the brakes on things, there was an annual InterHigh weekend, where pupils and teachers could connect in the real world, plus proms, parties and even a live theatre performance and streamed Christmas plays. There is currently funding in place to develop a futuristic ‘Virtual Campus’, initially for Sixth Formers where they will experience a 3D environment for lessons, trails and social spaces.
How it works
Up to GCSE the children are given four hours of tuition a day, usually in the morning. Registration is taken, children are expected to be ready for their lesson and parents have their own portal so that they can make sure their kids are complying! I was surprised that the kids don’t use their cameras – so only the teacher can be seen by all. However, in the breakout spaces (think virtual common room) the kids can put on their screens when appropriate. The first lesson in a subject is almost collegiate, an informal lecture held with 100 to 300 children and two teachers – one to talk, the other to answer any online questions fired off from the kids if they don’t quite understand what’s being taught.
The second class is smaller, 15-19 children (and they are always in the same group so they get to know their classmates) and run by a single teacher, this structure is simply known as ‘Lead’ and ‘Follow’ lessons. But don’t think that the kids can quietly play Minecraft while the class happen around them. What is fascinating is the extent of the technology used to monitor and engage.
Teachers can see in real time the interaction of students – there’s a traffic light warning system to show second-by-second engagement, and the teachers can then respond to those ‘zoning out’ by checking they understand or asking them questions. Using Adobe Connect, kids can put their virtual hands up to answer questions, and also ask the teacher to speed up (imagine saying that in a school class!) or slow down. Private messaging for help is common, and the kids are encouraged to message each other to engage or question as necessary. Any lessons that are missed can be accessed separately as they’re all recorded.
A Level students have less lesson time – an average of 13 hours of live teaching a week for three A levels in a class of maximum 15 pupils with a greater emphasis on home study.
With more than 3000 pupils, 26% of them from overseas (passable English being the only prerequisite to learning at this non-selective school), 140 teachers and 32000 live lessons a year, InterHigh has had plenty of practice at refining its offering of 8 core GSCEs, 21 A levels and 23 AS levels. Given that InterHigh is accessible to all, bar those with severe learning difficulties, the results are highly credible – in 2019 for GSCEs 29% of kids gained grades 9-7, whilst for A levels 20% gained A/A and 48% A/B. Subjects with the best levels of success are Computer Science and Maths. 2020 exam results are arguably meaningless given the fiasco of exam grading, but I will add here as soon as I receive them.
InterHigh focuses on core subjects for GSCEs, but it’s worth noting that for additional fees kids can also access the likes of computer games development and film studies. ‘Hands-on’ subjects like art, design, and anything that requires experiments is going to be a challenge for an online school so bear that in mind if you have a budding Rachel Whiteread or James Dyson.
Dr. Sara de Freitas has been in the hotseat since 2019, and you can’t argue with her creds – 25 years in education, 10,000 citations, 7 books authored on game-based learning, founder of the Serious Games Institute (yes, it’s a thing) and former deputy vice chancellor of Cumbria University. Hitting 50 this year, she has moved from a career mostly university based into school-age kids and seems to be revelling in it.
She’s an outgoing, friendly, clearly very smart character, with a focus on pushing student engagement (and therefore, of course, quality of outcome) – she talks about increasing interactivity with breakout rooms, simulations and ‘gamification across the whole piece’ to keep kids engaged and inspired but is also acutely aware of the need to create community amongst the children and also protect their welfare. She’s at pains to emphasise that InterHigh is not just an online tutoring system, it’s a proper school and the whole child is taken into account.
Given the relatively high numbers of children who have left mainstream education to embrace InterHigh’s online education for a raft of reasons that run from anxiety to bullying, exclusion to SEN, it’s no surprise that pastoral care (or in Interhigh speak, ‘Health and Wellbeing’) are taken seriously. There are six full-time pastoral leaders, an online health and wellbeing assessment tool, an online safeguarding system, one-to-one counselling where necessary and safeguarding reviews every few months by the Academic Council (led by Dame Erica Pienaar, Chancellor Emeritus of InterHigh).
Bullying seems almost non-existent here – I spoke to two children, 13 and 15, both of whom had been victims of bullying at mainstream school, who talked happily of their friends at InterHigh (including kids from Cayman Islands, Sri Lanka and Hawaii – a useful network for future summer holidays!) and were thriving. And there is an active knowledge of children and their personal issues – for example, children who find ‘joining in’ a total nightmare are forced to interact publicly.
Word on the ground
Positive. One parent I talked to felt the school had really understood and ‘got a handle’ on her kids and loved the fact that she was much more a part of their education with regular end of term reports and a fully operational parent portal. InterHigh is not without its issues – apparently in the early days of COVID the server couldn’t cope, though feedback is the problem was quickly dealt with. Children shouldn’t expect InterHigh to be an easy ride– there’s a lot of homework, up to two hours a day.
If you’re used to paying private school fees, it’s time to start smiling. InterHigh charges £3800 max per year though, that said, you can tack on £400 for each GSCE over and above the 5 core subjects. Four A levels cost £4450 per year. A levels are a more wincy £1625-1775 per year. There are also 10 scholarships a year granted to high achieving students and some means-tested bursaries
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Children who aren’t thriving at mainstream school or whose circumstances mean they can’t attend regularly.
Not for: This kind of learning approach is dependent on parents working from home or guardians being around in loco parentis. The lack of physical interaction between children, and inevitable screen time will be an immediate ‘no’ for some.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! Check out the website here – you can see some demo lessons and get your own feel for this online approach to learning.