The UK’s OEAS inspection will look at ways in which online schools foster socialisation and encourage students to engage with each other outside of the academic lessons on offer. This area has not been a strength of online schools in the past, but it has now come to the fore.
Most schools will have a virtual common room, where students can directly message one another and discuss hobbies and interests. There may be weekly assemblies where students can share their learning, and they normally start the school day with a tutor group session. And several schools offer termly opportunities for students to meet up in person and school trips.
Online schools look beyond the curriculum to stretch and challenge their students, just as you would expect from a brick and mortar school. For example, Pearson Online Academy UK Global and Harrow School Online both offer the Extended Project Qualification, which helps students to develop skills that are directly relevant to and useful for university-level study. When Minerva's Virtual Academy launches its A Levels, all Sixth Form (Year 12 and 13) students will take part in an enrichment programme, which will include life skills and a bespoke self-development programme.
They should also be offering career and university guidance; Pearson and Harrow both have a Success Coach who offers one-to-one coaching sessions and small group workshops
Most schools will also offer a programme of extra-curricular activities to some degree, which generally fall under these categories: sport, the arts, charity, and clubs and societies. There are the more traditional choices such as chess club, photography, school newspaper and debating through to contemporary options like film production and e-gaming.
At Minerva's Virtual Academy, students can sign up to World Changer Projects led by tutors with special interests,; programmes to date have included working with the International Space School Education Trust. Harrow School Online has a “super-curriculum” that includes an elective programme where students explore areas of scholarship and a study skills and mindset programme that focuses on skills such as resilience and leadership.
At My Online Schooling, students can register for up to three clubs of their choice per term, from chess to sign language, art to debating. Sophia High’s Beyond the Curriculum programme include activities such as computer science & coding, careers workshops with palaeontologists, a book talk series, and virtual talks from charity organisations. The school has also just launched a Changemakers leadership team with students from Year 1-9, giving even its youngest students a “voice”.
King’s InterHigh runs extra-curricular activities ranging from chess to horse club, as well as career-based societies such as Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary or Journalism to support its virtual work experience placements for sixth formers.
Mark O’Donoghue, CEO of Inspire Online Schools (which owns King's InterHigh), adds:
“While King’s InterHigh might be an online school, we do offer opportunities for students to attend physical activities whether this is a film studies trip to the Harry Potter Studios, an outdoor activity weekend or utilising our connection with Inspired Education group and other Inspired Schools for Sixth Form science practicals.
“For students who are over age 13, we manage our own, private social network exclusively for our students. This gives students the opportunity to engage in student-led interest groups with their peers."
A high number of students opting for online learning have health or emotional issues. While providing the pastoral care that children need can be more challenging when teaching remotely, mental health and wellbeing is no longer an after-thought at many online school.
For example, My Online Schooling has a Learning & Wellbeing Support Hub which offers anxiety management lessons, laughtercise sessions, one-to-one counselling sessions, and a weekly wellbeing club. At Sophia High School, all teachers complete a mindfulness course, and weekly PSHE and wellbeing lessons offer coaching to students on mindfulness and meditation, self-regulation and social responsibility.
David McCarthy, Director of Education, Sophia High School, says:
“Mental wellbeing and mindfulness at Sophia High School are seen as an essential part of our curriculum, rather than something that is offered alongside it. Our aim, in putting mental health and wellbeing at the forefront of our purpose and direction, is to create a safe and calm online learning environment and to strengthen the growth mindset, self-belief and resilience of our students.
“Throughout the year, our PSHE and Mindfulness lessons introduce the concept of mediation, and how meditation helps clear the mind of clutter and negative emotions. We explore the key areas of mindfulness such as: What does it mean to be healthy? What are emotions? What is the mind? What does it mean to be emotionally or mentally unhealthy? Is it OK to be sad? (‘negative’ emotions are perfectly natural). How can we help ourselves and others to deal with ‘negative’ emotions? Is it possible to observe your own mind?”