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Online schooling is an alternative to more traditional schooling, whereby children or young people learn either entirely or primarily online. Online schools and colleges have become particularly popular since COVID.

Online schools – why now?

COVID has led many families to think about online schooling who might not have done otherwise, with Google searches for the term ‘online schools’ rising over 600 per cent between summer 2019 and 2020. Some parents have told us that their child really took to the online learning provided by mainstream schools and they’ve decided to continue down that route. Others are fearful that mainstream schools may have to temporarily shut down again if there’s a second spike of COVID. Then there are those whose offspring were only just hanging on in mainstream schooling anyway due to mental health or SEN issues and COVID has prompted them to consider online schooling as a longer-term option.

But COVID isn’t the only reason that online schooling is taking off. We have spoken to many students with anxiety and other mental health problems who prefer the idea of learning from the perceived comfort of home. We have also heard from parents of children with SEN who say they like the quietness, flexibility and perceived anonymity of online learning.

Online learning can also suit families who want to access the British national curriculum from overseas. In addition, it can work well for elite young sportsperson and actors with professional commitments that make the inflexibility of mainstream school challenging. Then there are parents who like the idea of their children being home schooled but feel unable to do all the teaching themselves.

Online schooling is not for everyone. It’s not even for most people. But for a growing number of families, it is deemed a valuable alternative to traditional school, particularly as some are achieving the kind of results that most bricks and mortar schools would be proud of.

The options

Online schooling forms part of the wider home schooling model but takes some of the pressure of parents by providing students with a structured learning programme with trained teachers. There are two main types, although some online schools provide a combination of both:

  • schools that provide a structured school day with live lessons (often recorded so students can catch up later)
  • schools that provide a distance learning model with regular online input from trained teachers

Some families decide to top up the learning with tutors, either online or in person. A growing number of tutor agencies that we review provide this service either throughout the online schooling journey or at critical points eg coming up to exam time.

What’s available?

When it comes to online schools offering a structured school day, there are still surprisingly few options offering the British national curriculum. This is a world away from USA and Canada, where online schools are well established.

Just as with bricks and mortar schools, we only review those that demonstrate good results, have an established history and where parents and students describe mainly positive experiences. For online schools and colleges offering distance learning, there is a great number available but as yet, we do not review these.

That said, we do have an expert on our consultancy team who regularly advises on all the options available and can provide guidance about the subtle, and not so subtle, differences to help match the right one to your child.

The dangers

  • Education is about so much more than providing children and young people with knowledge and coaching them for exams. Students and parents with experience of online learning have told us that it can be a lonely way of working – many miss the banter on the school bus, the sports matches against other schools and the socialising that happens at lunchtimes. We can recommend some online schools that organise adventure weekends and school trips, but for most this is still not the norm.
  • Some subjects, eg science and art, don’t lend themselves to online learning. That said, we have been impressed by certain online schools that have taken an innovative approaches to teaching these subjects.
  • You would think that top-notch technology was a given in online schools. But online learning is still an emerging medium and many schools are still doing a lot of experimenting. Again, we can recommend schools that are more established in this area.
  • Clubs and societies don’t feature in most online schools and colleges, although some are introducing – with surprising success – virtual versions. One online school we know of asks pupils to take part in at least one real-life arts activity, a sporting activity and some kind of volunteering in their community, while another offers virtual common rooms and after-school clubs.
  • Peer to peer learning may be something you have to compromise on. But again, it’s something that some online schools and colleges are addressing – at one online school, students engage with their peers for around three-quarters of every lesson.

Things to consider

  • Structured school day with live lessons and a sense of community vs correspondence course with regular input from teachers
  • The school or college’s brand reputation and experience administering online programmes
  • Do they teach the national curriculum?
  • Completion rates and exam results
  • Student support (technical, academic, pastoral etc)
  • Teachers – qualifications, experience etc
  • Response rate eg will tutors mark your assignments within a set time?
  • Does the school or college help with organising any relevant exams such as GCSEs or A levels or will you have to do this independently?
  • Hidden costs

For further information on any of the issues above or to help find your child the right online school or college course(s), contact us about our online schools service (link) by emailing [email protected] or calling 0800 368 7694 (UK) or +44 203 286 6824 from overseas.

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