CfEY - From small acorns mighty oaks grow
Oak National Academy - Moving specialist learning online
But out of the chaos emerged one of the most impressive initiatives we’ve seen during the pandemic: The Oak National Academy. Backed by government funding, the online classroom and resource hub was ‘created by teachers, for teachers’. Around 40 volunteer staff across England put together free resources at breakneck speed and they have been used to deliver millions of lessons at home, from early years to year 10.
Bridging the gap
While the service was instantly well received, there was nothing designed specifically to meet the needs of families of young people with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND).
This gap was quickly acknowledged. Karen Wespieser took up the role of Oak’s curriculum lead for specialist content and called on the special schools teaching schools network, Whole School SEND and others to help bring together a team of teachers and therapists.
They wrestled with how to define what they were creating.
“How to reach the young people, and how to differentiate the levels of our lessons in a way that the audience could understand, then on top of that, uniting dozens of special schools around this one set of terminology - that was probably the biggest challenge,” Karen explained.
They recognised that the largest gap was in resources for learners with the highest levels of need and set about building resources at a “frenetic pace”. Just two weeks after Oak came into being the ‘specialist’ curriculum was ready, offering lessons in five subject areas: communication and language, numeracy, creative arts, independent living skills, and therapies.
“All of the teachers are doing amazing work,” Karen said.
The teacher’s view
One of those teachers is Gareth Smith, department lead at Severndale Specialist Academy in Shrewsbury. Gareth is cheerful and enthusiastic, despite his work sounding exhausting. He balances teaching with acting as Oak’s creative arts subject lead, as well as presenting lessons from his garden shed. The deadline for submitting these each week is Wednesday at midnight, and it’s often right up to the wire.
The quick turnaround is just one challenge Gareth has tackled. His teaching is normally very responsive and delivering a lesson without being able to see how learners are taking it is tricky. The lessons are also designed to be mediated by an adult, so the presenter has to direct the parent or carer to set things up, as well as getting the student engaged.
“You're not the teacher, in a way, you’re enabling the adult at home to be the teacher. It's quite difficult,” he said.
He’s found it helpful to visualise former students and how they might respond to different scenarios.
Each presenter is supported by a team that comes up with ideas, creates resources and ensures the lessons build on themes.
“Getting through week one without any of my teachers just crying or shouting at me was brilliant,” Gareth says, laughing.
“We have got such an enthusiastic team, it’s a great sense of community and achievement.”
The parent’s view
Cathy Williams has been using the Oak lessons with her son Oscar, who is six and has autism. They have dipped into both the mainstream and specialist curriculums and have found them an “invaluable lifeline”.
“Oscar has learned so much,” she says. “He's gone from just focusing on a pen grip to writing single words and doing the fingers spaces, and last week his was writing a short story with sentences. I've seen a massive leap in his progress.”
She explains that working through the lessons with her son has given her a clearer idea of his ability and they are communicating better.
Oscar has especially benefited from the social stories in the specialist offer, which have helped Cathy to explain what coronavirus is and why school is closed.
She recommends that parents using the resources “stay flexible” and choose lessons based on their child’s interests. Going over them again can help to build confidence.
Cathy is hoping that Oak will continue as children start to return to school. She is grateful to all the teachers involved.
“We really appreciate it. They are making such a huge difference.”
What does the future hold?
Developed in response to an immediate crisis with herculean efforts from educators, will Oak be sustainable once schools reopen full time?
Anne Heavey, National Director of Whole School SEND, is set to take over as curriculum lead for the specialist offer and has been thinking about its future. She has heard from school leaders that their SEND pupils are “the most successful, happy learners they've ever been,” in lockdown. Young people who have been unable to stay in class for a full lesson are “transformed”.
“I feel we have to preserve something here, around this flexibility,” she said.
“What I would like, with suitable safeguards - and they need to be really robust - is the possibility of dual placement, with remote learning and school.”
There are risks to this, and Anne is at pains to avoid “lowering the bar on inclusion in mainstream schools”
However, reducing the stress of travel, transitions, and the busy school environment, without removing opportunities to socialise and enjoy extra-curricular activities could be a game changer.
“This could save kids falling out of the system,” she said.