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Is it time to try an online school?

With many children struggling to study at home and doubts over September start dates, ‘virtual’ schools are gaining traction - but what do they offer that’s different?


For the last three months parents up and own the land have been tearing their hair out at home-schooling (just check out the results from our reader survey!). And with most children not due to go back until September at the earliest, the difficulties of teaching kids an off-line curriculum in a virtual world are all too obvious. 

However, it’s fair to say that this is definitely not a problem that Jacqueline Daniell (pictured) is encountering right now. The co-founder of InterHigh, the UK’s longest established online school, has had a cool 16 years to refine her virtual offering since its launch in 2005, and now teaches kids from aged 7-18, before waving them off with their GSCES, A-levels and places at Russell Group universities.

In this strange new educational climate, a dedicated online school brimful of the latest super tech has never felt more relevant or enticing. But what actually does an online school deliver? Can bricks and mortar schools learn anything from InterHigh’s approach to teaching? And, er, can our kids have a go? (yes, as it happens – grab your kids 5 annual places worth £20,000!!).

OK, Jacqueline, prepare to explain yourself to teacher.

Why did you start InterHigh?
My husband retrained as a secondary school teacher through the Open University after the birth of our third child, and when he started teaching, he quickly realised that if the children weren’t motivated for some reason often through no fault of their own – maybe they didn’t like the teacher, or the subject (it could be something fairly small that set then off the path), then things could go downhill quickly for them at school. He’d taken a module on his distance-learning course called ‘the school of the future’ and he felt that an internet school could be the answer. I don’t think we even had a PC at that point which seems incredible now.

So he takes all the credit?
Not likely! My background was architecture and graphic design so I bought into the project too and started designing a website. In 2005 we started officially with 23 students, though we both still had full time jobs, and by February 2006 we’d grown to 60 pupils. One morning I heard a message left by a mother crying on the phone for help, and I walked into work that day, handed my notice in and started at InterHigh full time.

What’s the concept of an online school – is it just private tutoring?
A lot of people think so, but no, it’s a full school experience. It’s an independent education, but because we don’t need to repair old buildings or keep lawns trimmed it’s a lot less expensive! We put our daughter through private school and know what you get for your money but also how much it costs in uniforms, trips and grounds; it was a huge financial sacrifice for us.

At InterHigh, children are taught in classes, they talk to their friends before and after their lessons (during too often with the technology) and even meet in the real world, but it’s an education that fits around them – we work with a lot of elite athletes and child professionals who need flexibility and need to take their education with them wherever they are.

The first InterHigh meet-up weekend

How has InterHigh evolved in 16 years?
We started with three year groups in secondary schools (Y8-9; Y10 and Y11); now we offer virtual school from primary age through to Sixth Form, and the breadth of the curriculum is massive – up from 7 core subjects to 167, with 140 full time staff. Of course we’ve always invested massively in technology – we have classrooms, and libraries and social areas, all kinds of simulations and aids, from chatbots and virtual teaching assistants to games to make virtual learning fun and engaging.

What’s your advice to schools struggling to motivate their pupils?
Teachers have done the basics well, but educational tools aren’t been optimised. The offline curriculum isn’t designed for online, and that’s where engagement drops off and pupils start to feel isolated, but there’s no quick fix without the technology or understanding of how to use it. For example, our students don’t use physical exercise books that automatically constrain, they have interactive activities in a 3D virtual world. And all our teachers have ‘engagement metres’ where they can see minute by minute who has not been interacting in the class so they can tweak their teaching or re-engage the student. It’s a totally different way of teaching.

What can kids expect from a ‘day’ at your school then?
Everything you expect in a physical school. There are tutor groups, form groups and class lessons in fixed groups of 12-15. We use Adobe Connect for classroom sessions, all lessons are recorded in case the students miss them or want to go over anything again. They interact with friends in their activities, there’s a whole social platform where they interact across continents, and there are seminars, guest speakers, masterclasses. And it’s more flexible, so you can pick it up when it’s convenient.

Er, do you mean there’s no fixed school day?
It’s a portable school – they can do it when it suits them, it’s a very different animal to the rigid school day. Core subjects are usually over by lunchtime. It’s not going to suit full-time working families with no support, but often there are grandparents or elder siblings, or parents working from home. It’s highly personalised learning. And because it’s so flexible you can also be part of InterHigh even if you’re at your own school, you don’t have to choose one over another.

What about sport? That must be a weakness?
Well we can’t put out a school rugby team, that much is true! But research shows that kids who do sport at school often leave sport when they leave school, but those who join sports clubs carry on. We mentor our pupils into sports clubs working with partners like Sports England, run our own exercise classes and teach PE as part of the national curriculum.

Do kids have to commit for a year?
No, it’s a bit like a subscription model – you can enrol for half a term at any time of year, and see how you feel, or you can join for a year and then re-enrol as you like. We’re introducing a 2 and 4 week Summer School next week which will particularly useful or those in Y10s and Y12s who have missed out on vital GSCE and A level study but it’s actually open to everyone.

What’s next?
We’re always looking at new technologies and simulations! There are 3000 children taught by us at the moment and we expect 6000 by next year, so it’s a serious responsibility. I still think it’s a privilege every day and I get emotional at least once a week! The big thing is that from September we’ll be inspected like other schools. That’s been our dream for so long – the official government recognition means a lot.

We have 5 annual courses at InterHigh to give to Muddy readers for children aged 7-18, worth a collective £20,000. Head over to Reader Treats. Good luck!

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