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Does the world need another online school?

Pearson Online Academy UK Global thinks so! With the launch of the educational behemoth's founding school in September, Muddy gets the lowdown from Principal Jo Vigneron

We’re used to the idea of online schools now, but is Pearson Online Academy UK Global offering anything that doesn’t already exist?  

Definitely! Our USP is clear – we’re the closest you’ll get online to a bricks and mortar school. There will be no lectures with hundreds of children tuning in; our classes will be between 20-30 students, and the reason for that is that we know that successful teaching is all about relationships. Our students will be known. Having smaller classes also means more attention, so we can focus on expectations of behaviour – getting to classes on time, filing homework, politeness, friendship building. Ultimately it’s about connection.

Do you think that’s one of the weaknesses of current online schools – a certain anonymity and lack of connection?

When I’ve had meetings with parents and students, the main thing they want to know is ‘Will I make friends? Will I be able to talk to my teacher when I need to?’. There’s a fear of lack of communication in online schools so we’ve made the important decision that cameras and microphones will be on always, so it really will be a live lesson with full interactivity (break out rooms, debating, polls, etc). That’s what creates rapport with teachers and other students – it’s really important if you want that feeling of being partof a school rather than just logging in. That said, there will be occasional exceptions – if a student has terrible anxiety, for example, we won’t force them centre stage and ask them to start speaking to the class. But what we will do is work carefully with them with a clear set of targets to get to the point where they caneventually participate fully in the class, that is the expectation.

 Principal Jo Vigneron

So who can come to Pearson Online Academy UK Global

In bricks and mortar schools you tend to start young in nursery or Key Stage 1 and 2, and build up the older years. In an online school it’s the opposite! So we currently offer education to 14-18 year olds at GSCE and A Levels , but the intention is to introduce more year groups, and we think that will actually happen very quickly. We also made the decision to just offer the STEAM subjects for this year’s intake which reflects the determination to get it right, rather than offering a plethora of subjects and taking everyone and anyone though the intention is to expand into humanities as soon as we can, probably next year.

When does the school launch?

We start in September as a founding school, expecting around 30% British pupils and the rest from a whole range of countries from the Far East – Malaysia, HK, Singapore, India, a big group in the Middle East (where I’m based – I’m in Abu Dhabi) and then a smattering of other nations. It works brilliantly to have so many nationalities, it’s a massive plus to the student’s education, and because we have lessons in the morning and afternoon and also everything is recorded, the time differences are no problem. 

What kind of child will Pearson Online Academy UK Global suit?

We’re more academically inclusive than some online schools – for us it’s about offering a well-rounded education. The beauty of the Pearson Online Classroom is that we can stretch and challenge the academically able as well as those who need a bit more support. Online school does lend itself to a certain type of student because they need to be able to manage their time, but actually if you’re thinking ‘oh god, my child’s not like that’ they might surprise you. In my previous school one of the most unexpected things I found in lockdown was that when we started taking our lessons online, it gave some of our more ‘class clown’ or lower achieving kids a chance to reinvent themselves. They didn’t have to amuse anyone else or spend 5 minutes choosing their seat and getting settled. They had a focus, and they were like, ‘WOW, I can actually do this’. It was revelation for all of us.

How can you make sure the students aren’t just sitting down all day alone? 

This is one of the big worries for parents and I understand it. Every student has a Success Coach whose job it is to get a true picture of how the student is doing – in classes, pastorally, personally in one-to-one catch ups every week and in their extra-curricular activities. There’s a clear expectation that the students should engage in their local communities, whether that’s from volunteer work – beach clean ups, visiting an old people’s home, charity work – to sports. There will be target setting involved, and the students will be expected to join in extra-curricular clubs too. We’re being inventive with these and trying to accommodate the student’s interests so suggestions for Autumn term include programming, running a business, online trading, digital art, and conservation! Parents and carers will be actively engaged too – there’s a direct line from parents to teachers, success coaches and myself so everyone has a true picture of what is happening.

You’ve been a bricks and mortar teacher until now. Are you anxious about moving your working life online?

I’m quite a relaxed person so I don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s not NATO, it’s a school! It’s about building a level of trust with the teachers and students, encouraging openness, accepting mistakes and learning from them. In one of my previous schools when we launched, I remember getting there on the first day and everything was perfect and I was ready to welcome the students, except I suddenly realised we’d forgotten to buy loo paper as 560 children and 160 teachers descended on the school. Cue a very quick trip to the supermarket, disaster averted and a lesson learned – keep your sense of humour!   

Pearson Online Academy UK Global. A full year’s tuition for 8 GSCEs starts at £5950. A Levels are charged at £1600 per A Level.  

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