Written by: David McCarthy (Sophia’s Director of Education)
Not all online schools are created equal. Which is why it is important to know which questions to ask when searching for an online school.
Here are some key things parents should consider when choosing an online school:
The first thing to look at is the education team/Management. Does it have a history in education? Have the members of the team been teachers themselves? Have they had managerial experience in education, or even better, have been a Headteacher in a previous school? All too often, you will find the people at the top are finance people with no experience in education; or very young teachers who have had very little experience in education. A test of a great educational leader is that they will put the needs of the pupil above financial gain. All key decisions will be driven by education and not profits. Experience is difficult to buy. Visit the school's 'About Us' section to learn how many years of experience the education team has.
Good communication is the bedrock of any good school. You want to create an atmosphere where it is like one big, happy family. When parents have enquiries, they should be responded to within 24 hours – even if it is only an acknowledgement that the email has been received. Again, parents that I know have sometimes had to wait weeks for a response – which is not acceptable; especially as they are fee-paying customers.
3. Class Sizes:
These can vary from six to over sixty. Obviously, the smaller the class size, the greater individual attention your child will receive during their lessons. Small class sizes are also a factor in the speed of progress in children at school. As a parent, if I was choosing an online school, not only would I ask for the current size of the classroom, but, more importantly, the online school’s policy of the maximum number of children they would have in a class, before they stop taking other children into that class. Sometimes, some online education providers can be a victim of their own success. One parent informed me that when they joined this online school, the class size was about 20. However, after a while the class size had grown to 60 for some of their lessons! In my opinion, this education provider is putting economic gain over the educational needs of the students in its care.
Is the curriculum being taught properly? There is nothing wrong with a system of blended learning, where students are taught in the morning, and have their independent studies in the afternoon. It is all about balance; is there too much emphasis on independent study? Again, this varies a great deal from one educational online provider to another.
In my research, I found that some education online providers only offer two 40-minute lessons per week in the core subjects of English and Maths at Key Stage 2. This, in my opinion, is simply not enough to cover the national curriculum programme set out by the government for children of this age. Another Online education provider offered only one lesson of English and Science per week at Key Stage 3. These lessons were two and a half hours long! Sheer madness! Having taught teenagers myself over many years, it is well known that their attention span can only generally last about an hour.
That is why you will find that, in physical schools, no lessons are generally longer than an hour. Students are so much better having four to five lessons of 40-50 minutes, spread over the week. Parents need to look at more than just the cost of the school when choosing an online school. There are reasons why some of these establishments are so cheap. Ask for a copy of their timetable, not a sample one, but the one that is occurring right now at their establishments.
How often are these educational establishments offering feedback on your child’s progress? How often are there summative (tests/exams) and formative assessments (classwork)? How often are these reported to the parents? What access do the parents have to the teachers? Are they allowed to meet them once per week? These are the type of questions that need to be asked.
Make sure that all the teachers on offer with the online education providers are qualified teachers, with degrees. This will vary a great deal from company to company, as many of them will palm off their clients with unqualified teachers from any part of the world.
This is something that parents often forget about. Remember you are giving a stranger access to your child. Ask the educational online providers whether all its teachers have a recent enhanced DBS check. This level of check shows full details of a criminal record.
This includes cautions, warnings, reprimands, spent and unspent convictions. It can also search the children and vulnerable adults 'barred list' to see if the applicant is prohibited from working with these groups. It would be even better if they stated that all its teachers are on the ‘Update Service’. The DBS update service lets teachers keep their DBS certificates up to date online, and allows employers to check online to see whether there are any changes to the certificate since they last saw them.
Another good question to ask is whether their teachers have had recent safeguarding training. The British Government expects all teachers to have read and adhere to the Keeping Children Safe Policy (Published in 2015, it has been updated for 2021). The British government also believes teachers should have completed training in Prevent (terrorism), FGM (Female genital mutilation), E-Safety and a safeguarding course in Keeping Children Safe in Education.
9. Learning Environment:
A well-designed learning environment can make the difference between an enjoyable and frustrating experience. Top online schools have classrooms that are easy to use and navigate through, even if you're not a computer expert. Their classroom technologies allow your child to interact with their classmates and instructor intuitively.
Also, check to see if the technical requirements match what you have at home. Most top online schools offer a learning environment that can be accessed from the most common platforms. Access to an excellent Wi-Fi is also crucial, as it will stop the lessons from ‘lagging’. The better the experience the student has online, the more they will enjoy it. There is nothing worse than a poor connection to an online classroom.
This is the one which annoys me the most. I often speak to parents who are looking for online education providers who tell them their establishment is accredited. This is simply not true - not a single British online provider has been accredited by the British government.
In 2019 the government published its Online Education Accreditation Scheme; this is a scheme where education online providers volunteer to have the government inspect their establishments (very much like Ofsted does in physical schools). Here, schools have to prove that they have met the government criteria to achieve accreditation. Due to COVID, this scheme has been put back. However, it might be worth asking the education online provider whether they have signed up for this scheme.
Conclusion: As you can see, I have not mentioned the names of any of the online education providers I have spent time researching. The reason for writing this piece is not to shame these establishments, but to arm parents with the sorts of questions they need to be asking any online education provider. They say that knowledge is power. It is crucial that all parents spend time researching and comparing these online education providers. At the end of the day, it is the educational progress of your children that we are talking about, and that is in your hands.