Since March last year, teachers have faced an unprecedented challenge: how to safeguard the education of children and young people amid the disruption inflicted by the pandemic.  Remote learning has been a big part of teachers’ response – as part of a package of blended learning, as something based on hard copies of learning materials, as a collection of web-based activity.

This information is based on the experience of the last 10 months – months of innovation but also months of pressure. Linked to this are reflections and advice produced by teachers – in primary and secondary schools and in SEND settings. It is intended to support members in navigating the opportunities and demands of remote learning. Covering issues of procedure, working conditions and educational content, it is intended to contribute to professional discussion and to be a resource for negotiations.

This offer of remote learning that schools and colleges [1] make to learners will need to be developed closely with staff and shaped by what is realistic and manageable in the social context of the institution, the demands of workload and the importance of staff well-being. It should be based on the principle that no student should be left behind: within the capacities of the school, appropriate provision needs to be made for all students, whatever their circumstances. 

[1] For the sake of brevity, we refer to ‘schools’ rather than ‘schools and colleges’.


Government expectations

The Government has announced that a new national lockdown will come into force on Wednesday, 6 January. During this period schools, special schools and colleges will remain open to vulnerable children and young people and the children of key (‘critical’) workers only. All other children and pupils will learn remotely until February half term, at least. This means schools have a duty to provide education to children at home, just as they do when they are in the classroom – see the Government’s Temporary Continuity Direction for remote learning. The expectations on the quality of remote education expected of schools remain the same as those set out in June. On 6 January, the Education Secretary told the House of Commons that “remote learning is mandatory for all state-funded schools and will be enforced by Ofsted.” He stated his expectation that “schools [will] provide between three and five teaching hours a day, depending on a child’s age.” The Secretary of State this imposed a double duty on schools: to teach the large and increasing number of learners who will be on school premises, and to provide remote provision for those who are learning at home.

The NEU says

The form, extent and content of remote learning should be agreed at school level. Many factors, including the age and stage of students, the subject and topics being taught, and the readiness of students and staff for using various technologies, will need to be considered before the best approach is decided upon. It will not be the same for every child in every school for every subject. It should take account of other demands on the school, that stem from the significant number of learners who will need face-to-face teaching. Only school leaders, in collaboration with the teachers who know their students best, can make these decisions. Time should be scheduled for year groups or subject departments to collaborate and work out how best to make use of them. Schools should seek regular feedback from teachers to identify what is and is not working and practice should be modified accordingly. 

Students and learning: considerations for schools

In making their plans, schools should consider the following:

  • Where possible, distance learning should follow the curriculum being taught in school, but not seek to replace it entirely. Schools should think about the different levels of provision needed for different groups of students living and learning in different circumstances.
  • Schools should have realistic expectations of what can be achieved through remote and blended learning. Everyone who has been involved in developing it realises that it is not a full substitute for face-to-face teaching.
  • Most teachers will have limited experience of teaching remotely with either no training or personal development in blended learning techniques. Where possible, schools should provide ongoing training, support and professional development.  At the very least, there should be a designated role for a colleague to research and disseminate best practice.
  • Students learning from home, will have very different experience of education compared with being at school or college. Leaders and teachers should consider how to vary the activities and contact to maximise engagement and access to learning.
  • Schools should recognise that the assessment of learning gaps and students’ readiness to learn from home will be different for individual students.  Such assessment will be time-intensive and add to teacher workload. Any additional workload must be compensated for by reductions elsewhere.  
  • Schools should recognise this is a very challenging time and teacher and pupils well-being and mental health may be affected. It is important to support and work collaboratively to continue pupil development and progression and successfully deliver lessons remotely.  
  • Many learners with SEND are finding the transitions in and out of school very challenging and extra communication with parents may be needed. Leaders should recognise that SENCOs will need additional release time and resources to provide the necessary support for students with SEND and students with emotional or social needs.  Further advice on online learning in SEND settings is provided here.

Teachers and reps should expect leaders to:

  • Agree policies and practices relevant to each scenario. This might include a clear idea of how many lessons, subjects or tasks should be made available each day; how frequently feedback should be given on pupil work; and what the balance should be between teacher input (including presentations, explanations), other resources (including film, textbook, external resources) and pupil tasks. Leaders should share these expectations with parents and students as appropriate.
  • Refrain from monitoring or inspecting teachers’ online lessons for performance or appraisal purposes.
  • Have clear policies and practices with regard to the safeguarding aspects of any remote teaching needed.
  • Ensure that they have a list of students who will struggle to access technology, Wi-Fi, or quiet space for learning, and develop contingency plans to support those students where possible. During the last long period of part-closure, in Spring and Summer last year, many schools produced hard-copy packs of learning material. This approach will still be necessary. Parents should have the opportunity to request hard-copies of online learning material.
  • Recognise that some students need to share laptops/computers at home (because of siblings or parents also working at home).  Many have to undertake their lessons as and when they can during the day, not at the specified lesson time.
  • Support them to provide the best learning opportunities possible for children and young people, whilst being protected from the physical and mental health impact of over-work.
  • Consider how much time is spent by pupils in front of a screen and ensure a variety of learning activities are planned.
  • Nominate remote learning leaders, who support and promote good practice for remote learning provision, and review whole-school or college practices.
  • Consider how they best make use of teachers who are working from home, for example assigning some remote teaching, developing or recording presentations etc, where appropriate to the teacher’s subject and/or phase teaching experience.
  • Read ideas from primary and secondary members about the process and content of online learning.

Pre-recorded lessons

Pre-recorded segments are suitable for saving and might be useful for going over key concepts[AB1] . This is very different to the recording of live lessons, which are live interactions. They can be accessed more flexibly, at times convenient to students, and paused and re-watched.

In the current circumstances of national lockdown, where travel to work is discouraged, work associated with remote learning should where possible be done at home. This should be in a neutral environment: no bedrooms, no distractions, personal or family pictures in background, anything that could be a distraction from the lesson focus.

Live streamed lessons from the classroom

Live streamed lessons are increasingly being used by teachers when students are isolating and where schools and colleges are operating on a rota basis.

  • Live streamed lessons can be a useful tool to ensure the equity of education of all students, and to mitigate increased teacher workload. However, it is important to recognise that the experience of the lesson in the classroom is very different from that of learning at home. What can be learned through live interaction, face to face, is very difficult to replicate online especially in large classes. The efforts by some schools to move to a curriculum that is very largely live streamed, for most of the school day, are misguided; they overwork staff and do not produce good learning experience for students. The government’s requirement that schools should provide 3-5 hours of remote learning each day should not equate to 3-5 hours in front of a screen! Remote learning involves reading and other guided activities, that go beyond a focus on the screen.

Schools and colleges should have clear safeguarding policies and practices in place, informed by work such as that of the NSPCC.

  • Clear procedures for staff to follow where a child protection issue arises during a live stream (e.g. the staff member witnesses’ behaviour which suggests a child may be at risk of harm).
  • For young children, the camera should be trained on the teacher and the board, with the teacher’s consent, or just on the board/screen with teacher’s voice. Students should not be visible on screen at any time.
  • The teacher should decide when to ask pupils to switch on cameras, and mute and unmute pupils as appropriate, e.g. for asking questions and for discussion.

Detailed suggestions on livestreaming have been offered here by a group of NEU members working on health and safety issues.

  • Staff working in school/college doing online lessons will be spending more of their time sitting at a computer, so the protections of the Display Screen Equipment (DSE) Regulations 1992 on screen breaks, seating and eye tests etc. are more important than ever.  Find out more in the NEU briefing, Computer safety.


In order to meet these expectations, teachers will need a significant amount of time to plan content that can be used in classrooms and remotely and to find or record explanations of new concepts. While some of this time can be found by reprioritising and repurposing activities, this is unlikely to provide enough time to plan a programme that is of equivalent length to the core teaching students would receive in school, ideally including daily contact with teachers. 

The difficulties involved in fulfilling two responsibilities at the same time of (teaching vulnerable students and the children of key workers in class and teaching other learners remotely) needs to be recognised. Leaders and teachers will need to work together to agree what is reasonable and manageable, in order to maintain pupils’ learning as much as possible during this period. 

With this in mind:

  • Schools and colleges should monitor staff wellbeing and morale regularly and have policies in place to improve the wellbeing of all staff, as well as not having policies that are to the detriment of staff wellbeing.
  • Teachers should not be expected to record lessons or segments of lessons on top of a full day’s teaching of those students who are in attendance at school. Leaders should think about ways of minimising the workload.
  • Schools should agree the priorities for planning: will you plan first for particular year groups or subjects? Where possible, staff should share the work with colleagues in the year group or department. Staff might also be able to share with colleagues in different schools in the local area or MAT. 
  • Schools should have a plan for how to use external resources – blended learning does not have to mean the class teacher presenting and developing original materials. Schools have used materials from the BBC and Clickview for example. Subject associations and societies have made many valuable resources available
  • Government advice points to materials from the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) as well as to Oak Academy.
  • Leaders should consider whether teachers who are working from home for health reasons, might be able to deliver remote learning for students who are at home. This would depend on their subject and/or age range experience.
  • We have FAQs on Workload during Coronavirus.

The digital divide

It is now very clear that not all families have internet access or access to sufficient devices and a space in which to work on them, schools have made enormous efforts to address this issue, but problems remain. Even where the question of IT supply has been dealt with, the impact of social divisions on online learning and communication is strong. It is important to respond to this situation in supportive ways. If talking about internet access or remote learning in the classroom, be mindful of not exposing students who will not want to be identified as living in poverty 

  • Address students' feelings and anxieties. Talking about difficulties in accessing learning can make young people sad, anxious and/or emotional. Let students know it's natural to feel this way. Try to end on a positive note (“we're finding ways to help”) 
  • Remodel any negative language that students may use about those without internet access/certain devices by rephrasing what they say 
  • Wherever possible, communicate with parents through a mix of methods (letters, emails, texts, in person...)
  • Even when you are not explicitly talking about poverty, it's important to make sure you don't use language that stigmatises children living in poverty, or which excludes them
  • Describing initiatives like sharing schemes as 'green' or 'community focused' can help increase uptake or avoid stigmatising families (instead of focusing on financial aspect) 
  • Talking directly about financial difficulties can sometimes worry parents and carers. Try using collective words like 'us' (e.g. “we want our families to get the support they're entitled to”) 
  • Families appreciate that schools are willing to talk about family finances. Asking families what help they need around online learning and your blended learning arrangements is often the best way to make sure your school is providing the right support. 

Adaptive technology

  • Many students with SEND will use adaptive technology in school and will need access to the same equipment at home in order to effectively access online learning if that is what their peers are doing.
  • Schools should ensure that where videos are included in online work and students may have a hearing impairment then captions should be available. Likewise, for students with a visual impairment descriptive technologies will be required at home as well as at school.
  • Families of students using adaptive technology at home may also need access to a technician linked to the school to assist with any issues.

Special schools

  • Many special schools do not find online approaches to home/blended learning to be appropriate for their students. It is more important for the development of pupils to keep the social connections going and for schools to facilitate online 'get togethers' of small form groups in the presence of parents and carers.
  • Special schools should communicate regularly with parents and carers of SEND pupils and support the continued therapies and external provisions that are crucial for the successful development of SEND pupils.

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