Need to Know: Online Schools in the UK

Rising numbers of online schools have opened in the UK in the past 20 years, offering a private secondary education for as low as £4,000 a year. But can a virtual school ever be a replacement for the classroom? WhichSchoolAdvisor.com takes an in-depth look at the reality of having a full-time online education, what to look for when choosing an online school, and what options are available for students living in the UK.
Need to Know: Online Schools in the UK
By Carli Allan
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As Covid-19 restrictions ease in schools across the UK, we have gone back to traditional methods of education within a brick-and-mortar classroom – and many parents and students have welcomed the return to at least some form of conventional, classroom-based teaching with open arms.

But what if families prefer the freedom and flexibility of distance learning? For the past 20 years, online or virtual schools have offered an alternative to traditional classrooms with walls. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this online model of education has become even more popular in some parts of the world with online schools seeing a huge spike in enrolments.

Although the US has always led the way for virtual education, we are seeing more fully online schools ‘opening’ worldwide. In Hong Kong, Kent College (Hong Kong) opened with an online campus offering IELTS, iGCSE and A Level courses, which are taught by UK teachers from Kent College. In Singapore, Invictus International, which has campuses in Singapore, Hong Kong and Cambodia, opened a new online primary school called Invictus Family; teaching is based on the UK National Curriculum and Singaporean maths, and all lessons are taught live on Zoom.

In the UK, Harrow School launched an online sixth form offering A Levels in September 2020 to ‘sell’ and deliver a UK education to students living overseas. And, most recently, the new King’s College Online has opened admissions for September 2021 to students in the UK and Europe.

Why choose an online school?

Now that schools have reopened, what are the advantages of attending a full-time virtual school without walls? Cost is certainly a key factor. Annual fees for GCSE or A Levels programmes can be as low as £6,000, which is at least £10,000 cheaper than the day fees at many UK independent schools. However, just as you'll find at many bricks and mortar private schools, there are still exam entrance fees to pay on top. Exam fees are paid directly to the exam centre and you should expect to pay upwards of £100 for each IGCSE exam and around £250 for A Levels, depending on the subject chosen.

So, while students can access a UK private education for a fraction of the cost of studying on campus, you will need to factor in the extra cost of exam fees. This could be around £1,000 for nine IGCSEs and £750 for three A Levels.

With the now familiar images of students wearing masks all day, playing 2m apart in the playground, and being seated in rows of single desks in the classroom, parents may prefer to wait for restrictions to be fully lifted before returning to campus. Some may be waiting for travel restrictions to be lifted before they can move to a new country or return to their home country. Or, others may prefer the online learning model that they have trialled for several weeks or months during the UK’s school closures.

10 Questions To Ask

  1. Following months of distance learning within mainstream education, families have a much clearer idea of what a virtual school is. But, before making the decision to break out of the traditional primary or secondary school mould, consider if this is the best academic track for your child. Will they benefit from the classroom teaching that physical schools can now offer, or will they thrive in the more independent study environment of a virtual school?
  2. While some virtual schools deliver synchronous (live) lessons for most of the daily timetable, others depend heavily on asynchronous (on demand) learning which removes much of the live interaction. The advantage of live lessons is that students can hear and see the teacher, and take part in the lesson. Also, are lessons recorded? If so, students can catch up on a lesson they may have missed, or re-watch if they need a refresher for homework or exam revision.
  3. Does the school have the reputation and experience of running an online programme? Online schools are not Ofsted-inspected like physical schools in the UK, but the Department for Education has established the Online Education Accreditation Scheme which sets minimum standards for all online schools in the country to meet. 
  4. Does the school teach the UK curriculum, and does it offer GCSEs and A Levels as part of is secondary and sixth form education? At most online schools, it’s your responsibility to book your exams as a private candidate at an approved centre that is convenient for you; exam dates are nationally set so you’ll sit your exams at the same time as all other students in the UK.
  5. Not every subject lends itself to a smooth transition to online learning and, as distance learning has taught us all, specialist subjects such as PE, art and languages are challenging to teach beyond the classroom. So, ask how the school is teaching these practical and creative subjects. Also, consider that if your child wants to purse a creative degree then they will be unable to study qualifications such as drama, which requires a live performance component, or photography, where schools need to verify that all work is completed by the students on their own.
  6. As many teachers in traditional schools can now testify, online teaching is an entirely new experience. It requires tech-savvy teachers of a certain personality type and with a certain mindset. So, you need to ask, who are the teachers – and are they technology-trained and adept at using virtual classroom technology?
  7. Online teachers need to develop different methods of teaching and evaluating; but how do they check for understanding, for example, if they are not present in the classroom? It’s important that teacher:student ratios are kept low so that students can still get the support needed. Also, students should have access to varied channels of feedback such as Google Classroom, one-on-one during Zoom classes, interactive learning boards like Explain Everything and Educreations, and GSuite tools such as Google Docs.
  8. While online schools offer a very different option to home schooling – parents are the full-time teachers in the latter – they do require some degree of parental involvement. Many parents thrust into the role of distance learning ‘teacher’ over the past year can vouch for how daunting, challenging and time-consuming it can be. At a certain age, children are not able to self-regulate, so consider that online schooling is perhaps better suited to older students, and those who can work well independently.
  9. The biggest missing link in a virtual school is social interaction. So, what happens to the social aspect of learning when students are not attending a physical class, and don’t have the opportunity for face-to-face interactions with their peers You should be looking for a school where students meet in real-time through video meets and chats and, if living close by, they can meet and become friends. 
  10. And, finally, check the geographical restrictions. If an online school is based outside of the UK, they may deliver live lessons based on a different time zone, which could mean registration at 4am!

Next: 6 Online Schools in the UK

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