King’s InterHigh, The Metaverse, IB & the Future

Pioneering, forward-thinking and increasingly international. Ashley Harrold, Executive Head of King’s InterHigh, talks about the growth of one of the world’s leading online schools.
King’s InterHigh, The Metaverse, IB & the Future
By Carli Allan
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Online schools are here to stay – and being physically present in a traditional classroom is no longer the only option. With the growth of online schools, students have access to an education whenever they want it, wherever they live.

As the first and only school in the world to offer the IB Diploma Programme completely online, and one of the only online schools to use a metaverse school to teach students, King’s InterHigh is one of the most ambitious online schools. And, in terms of experience and student numbers, King's InterHigh is among the most successful online schools globally.

This UK-based online school has strengthened its presence in the Middle East over the past two years by launching a Gulf Standard Time timetable option for international students, and is broadening its horizons even further with the launch of a Southeast Asia timetable in September. It’s fair to say that King’s InterHigh is putting online education on the world map. 

With over 17 years' experience of offering online learning, InterHigh merged with the King’s College schools' group in 2021. Today, King’s InterHigh teaches the UK National Curriculum and IB Diploma for over 4,500 children from Years 3 to 13.

There’s no shortage of online schools in the UK and beyond, so why is King’s InterHigh so successfully blazing its own trail of education? Executive Head Ashley Harrold sums it up in three key words.

“Excellence. I think we've got really high standards and that shines through in everything we do. 

“Flexibility is absolutely fundamental and it's probably our single biggest strength. 

“And innovation. We're very creative and leading lots of trials and lots of pilots.”

WhichSchoolAdvisor talks with Mr Harrold to find out more…

Is this a new era for online education?

Q. An alternative to a traditional, brick-and-mortar education; it’s not needed or wanted by everyone, but in a post-pandemic world the demand for online education is certainly there. In this post Covid 19 era, why is interest and participation in online learning continuing to grow?

"Online education offers flexibility for families worldwide and it genuinely works for students in a range of different situations and circumstances. 

First of all, we are offering a premium education that’s very affordable when compared to a physical school. 

Some families found that the move to online learning during the pandemic worked really well for their child. Students with special educational needs, for example, can revisit their lessons and have more time to process challenging content. We've also got high-achieving students who are two or three years ahead of their year group. In an online school, they can follow the classes of higher year groups without a problem, whereas in a physical classroom it's very noticeable

We also have a lot of students with a professional interest such as sport or acting. The flexible approach of online education means that they can fit in their training, rehearsals etc around lesson recordings. We have live teaching with qualified teachers, and these lessons are also recorded so that students can revisit them at any time if they have other commitments during the day.

We meet students on their own terms and give them the flexibility they need to be successful. After just one or two weeks of online learning, students can feel much more confident; it’s incredibly empowering for them. Online learning is not for everyone, but it can be a highly effective alternative to traditional education."

Q. By launching timetables for the Middle East and South East Asia you are widening access to students in different time zones. Have you needed to adapt the full UK curriculum that you offer for these different markets? 

"We try very hard to keep our curriculum consistent as we have spent a huge amount of time refining it. The lesson structure, the training for teachers, the delivery model – everything is similar. Whichever timetable a student is on, they can be very confident that they're getting the same standards of education as elsewhere in the school. 

Sometimes we will vary the subjects that we offer because of the different demand for subjects in different regions. For the Gulf Standard Time timetable, for example, there are more technical subjects – maths, the sciences, further maths – as academic and technical subjects are really popular in this region."

Why is an online education different to a traditional school?

Q. King’s InterHigh does not have the constraints of a physical school and has more academic freedom than a UK state school. How have you designed your curriculum to meet UK and IB requirements while keeping things bespoke to your school?

As soon as you remove the constraints of any curriculum, you can offer students more choice. By doing so, we had a decision to make – do we make those choices for our students or do we pass them onto our families and say – what do you want? 

We've selected the second route. We offer the entire UK curriculum with a very broad subject offering but we give our students plenty of freedom and flexibility to customise this curriculum.

For example, in Key Stage 3 (Years 7 to 9), students can enrol for as many, or as few, of the subjects from the core list as they wish. Each year, they can choose their own combination of subjects, giving them the chance to discover which subjects they have a passion for before making their I/GCSE choices at the end of Year 9. It means that each student’s timetable will look very, very different.

We still want our students to progress through to university or take whichever pathway they choose to follow, so we haven't tried to reinvent the subject wheel. Instead, we’re giving more control to our families because we don’t have the limitations of 'subject blocks' that many physical schools will have."

Q. Not every subject lends itself to a smooth transition to online learning and specialist subjects such as PE, art and languages can be challenging to teach beyond the classroom. How do you address these shortcomings, as well as the lack of regular physical interaction between children and increased screen time?

"The most important thing is that online learning doesn't fill your entire day – and this starts with how we schedule the timetable for our students. We don’t completely fill up their day with lessons and there are plenty of breaks built in because we don’t want them sat behind a screen for the whole day.  

We offer plenty of flexibility when we timetable subjects and, because we’re a very large online school now, we can run multiple versions of a lesson at different times of the day. In Year 10, for example, we run 25 different English classes so that students can select the most convenient time for them to attend the lesson. 

Because our students have plenty of gaps in their timetable, we can encourage them to move away from the screen, go outside, and have a healthy lifestyle. From September, we’re adding Active Time to the timetable, which will be a PE-based lesson with physical exercise.

There’s a huge demand for our clubs, ranging from running club to chess. These give students the opportunity to engage in fun, student-led interest groups with their peers, which is so important from a social side of things. We’ve also got an internal social network that's safe and controlled so that students can talk to each other. And, as we’re speaking today, some of our students are away on a residential trip, enjoying plenty of outdoor activities."

Q. The demand for online education continues to grow worldwide and it has become a popular alternative to brick-and -mortar education. What impact could this have on traditional higher education?

"There is a trend towards online further education and universities are becoming aware of the potential here; we’re already seeing online degree and master's courses and there is a much greater understanding that it is entirely possible to learn online. 

It's not a completely level playing field as students need the internet and technology to access an online education, but it is becoming more accessible and more possible for students living in different countries.

It’s also important to recognise that online school qualifications are recognised as an entirely valid route to university, and our sixth form students receive offers from many leading physical universities worldwide."

Is online the future for the IB?

Q. King’s InterHigh was the first school in the world to take part in the IBO’s pilot and offer the IBDP online. As well as being more affordable than many IB schools (annual fees are £8,400) what are the advantages of studying the IB online?

"The IB is focused on international-mindedness, and we are delivering it internationally. It just makes sense.

The IB is focused on your understanding of others, of different cultures, and different mindsets; this is the core principle behind the programme. A benefit of studying the online IB is that your classmates are truly international; you are working alongside students who are living in the countries that you are studying. So, when you have a lesson on different perspectives, you can hear the different perspectives of students from different parts of the world rather than imagining them.

Our IB students have formed some incredibly close friendships that are genuinely international and although they haven’t met in person yet, they feel part of a very strong cohort. We are planning a residential trip at the end of the year to Dubrovnik to bring them all together."

Q. How do you overcome the challenges of teaching the more practical aspects of the IBDP online?

"It’s all about collaboration.

Bringing the IB Diploma Programme online required us to find solutions to certain aspects of the programme. The IBDP is a fantastic qualification and we really wanted to add it because it is such a brilliant pathway for students and it’s very well respected. But it does bring with it some challenges that we don't face with other parts of our curriculum. 

In languages and the sciences, there's a real demand for collaboration and physical interaction. We have used technology to solve some of the challenges here and every IB student needs a virtual reality headset so that they can access our Metaverse school.

IB students complete science experiments in a custom-built lab that we've built entirely in virtuality. It’s so powerful to see about 60 IB students who live worldwide come together and collaborate in a virtual science lab; they'll do the experiments together as if they were in a lab, and they'll work as a team while seeing and talking to each other's avatars. 

This technology has proven to be so successful that we’re looking at moving it into other parts of the school, particularly as access to headsets becomes more affordable for families. We've got some headsets in five of our physical schools as well so that students from different schools around the world – the furthest one is Mexico – can come together in one lessons. It’s a brilliant way to work."

Q. Intelligence chatbots could be changing the way students are taught and study, and IB students are officially allowed to quote work generated by ChatGPT in their essays. Do you think the International Baccalaureate Organisation is taking a sensible approach to the use of ChatGPT?  

"We’re taking a very positive approach to ChatGPT and we think it's a really good development, a really good tool. We need to understand this tool as educators, though; we need to get under the skin of what it does and doesn't do rather than simply saying you can or you can't use it. 

Chat GPT has got some limitations and there are things that it can't do – and I think that's a really interesting discussion to have with our students. We need to let them know that ChatGPT can produce a pretty decent essay, but it won’t be an essay that is going to get top marks; it's not as good as a very good human. 

There are many ways that technology and AI can be embedded in education. We find that our students love using technology, although it may be that we're slightly biased because we've got students who've already chosen to study online.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help us to practise more inclusive teaching, for example. We are currently testing the use of AI virtual assistants to support students in their lessons; they can ask it questions just like a classroom assistant.

About a year ago we introduced an AI product called Century Tech, which is a really clever way of quizzing our students and, based on the things they get right and wrong, it suggests work that is suitable for their ability level. Students like the independence this gives them; if they want to learn or practice something, they don't need to wait for the teacher, they can get on with it immediately. It’s really empowering."

Will technology shape the future of British education?

Q. As a school that offers both I/GCSEs and A Levels, what changes would you like to see in the National Curriculum for England? Will we still have GCSE qualifications in 10 years’ time?

"I/GCSEs and A Levels are a very rigid system of qualifications, and they take a very rigid approach to what success looks like. I think we need to develop individualization of learning. Most schools are delivering a very similar version of the curriculum, but what happens if this doesn’t quite fit with what your child is interested in? We need to look at a more personalized learning approach that can customise learning for your child’s strengths, needs, skills etc.

This needs to be balanced with getting a broad education – and I wouldn't advocate that students drop subjects early just for the sake of it. However, if we want students to be passionate about learning and we want them to really thrive, then we need more personalisation. We need to give students more control over what they study and when they take examinations.

Under the existing model, students take all their exams at the same time. This really plays to a certain skillset; if you can revise well and cope with doing all your exams in a two and a half week window in the summer, then you’ll be fine. But there are students who would be more successful if they could sit their assessments throughout the year, when they're ready. "

Q. We’ve already seen AQA trial online exams in 2022 and the Cambridge exam board is holding online mock GCSE exams this year. Now King’s InterHigh is taking part in a pilot run by exam board Pearson to trial online GCSE exams this year. Does this trial mark a big step towards online exams in the near future?

"We've got about 150 students who will be taking their GCSE exams online this year, so it’s a really big first cohort. They will be taken in secure conditions so that students are unable to cheat in any way.

It’s a huge development as it means that a UK education and internationally recognised qualifications are very much open to students worldwide. There are huge benefits for our students being able to sit their exams from home. It’s more convenient for families who don't live near to an exam centre, and it could be an absolute game-changer for students who have anxiety or a real fear of sitting exams 

We hope to see that these online exam will mean fairer access to assessments for students who are very capable but are challenged to do as well as they could've done by having to sit the exams in a physical school.

While we are trialling the online IBDP, it will still be physical exams at the end. In the future, I think we could see the move to online exams for the IB as well. I think that most international assessment could soon be delivered online."

Ashley Harrold leads King’s InterHigh into the future

Q. King’s InterHigh is a non-selective school, offering an online education to students of all abilities and nationalities. You were previously head of a large state school in Sussex, working with children of mixed abilities. How is your previous experience relevant to your current role?

"Fundamentally, Blatchington Mill School was a great school with an excellent ethos; it was focused on inclusivity and serving individual students' needs. It was a large school of about 1,650 students with a huge range of different needs. This gave me a grounding in understanding how to deliver an excellent education to a broad set of needs; this has proven to be crucial as I’m now leading an online school which is incredibly diverse with every type of student situation you could imagine. 

Also, I was head at the school when the pandemic started so I had to quickly shift to online learning, quickly understanding what works and what doesn't work. I've always been interested in technology and how it applies to education, but I’ve never needed to move both staff and students online almost immediately. 

These two experiences have been key. Above all, though, if you are passionate about education and enjoy working with young people, that's an absolute must for working in any school - whether online or physical.

Q. And finally… what memories from your own school days have influenced your outlook on what makes a great school for children?

"I was very lucky. I went to a very large secondary school in Devon which offered a huge range of opportunities, had fantastic resources and a really broad curriculum. I could discover the things I enjoyed and the things I didn't, and then specialise. On top of that, you always remember the teachers who had an impact on you and encouraged you. I think it was the teachers who brought the subjects to life for; I really enjoyed design and history.

My teachers gave me a sense that education was something worth doing. I left school with the impression that these subjects were worth pursuing, even if I wasn’t quite sure exactly where they were going to lead. That was key for me."

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