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Pioneering online classes provide educational lifeline for key workers’ kids

A pioneering online learning programme, created by academics as part of research into the impact of Covid-19 on schooling, has provided an educational lifeline for a family of keyworkers in Flintshire.

Top researchers from Bangor University have recruited families from across England and Wales for the study, which considers how best to teach children remotely during long periods of absence from school.

The team, led by Dr Manon Jones, a senior lecturer and researcher at the School of Psychology at Bangor University, designed an eight-week online course for Key Stage 2 pupils delivered by qualified teachers to measure the success of different interactive teaching techniques on children’s reading and writing skills.

Among those taking part are eight-year-old Katie Roberts and her brother Lucas, 10, from Holywell, who attend Ysgol Bryn Garth in Holywell and whose parents are both keyworkers.

Mum Bethan Roberts, a child health psychology practitioner at Glan Clwyd Hospital in Bodelwyddan, admitted the weekly sessions had been an educational lifeline for her children, who like most had struggled to adapt to home learning during lockdown.

“My husband and I are both key workers. I had three weeks off during lockdown as I was in-between jobs and was taking care of home-schooling,” explained Bethan, a qualified nurse.

“I signed up to various online resources but children just don’t respond in the same way as they would at school.”

“It wasn’t that they were cheeky, it was just trying to encourage that same willingness to learn that they have when it’s someone who is not their parent.

“When I heard about this study, I thought it was a win, win situation. Elena, their teacher, has been brilliant.

“It’s amazing for them to have the interaction. Her engagement style, her story telling, everything is brilliant. Part of me doesn’t want it to end because Katie is getting so much out of it.”

Researchers at Bangor University have recruited 220 schoolchildren from Wales, Yorkshire, Bristol, and Devon to complete the course, which consists of two 45-minute lessons per-week.

The project is being run in collaboration with the university’s flagship Miles Dyslexia Centre – an internationally-renowned specialist centre at the forefront of dyslexia research in the UK – and will explore the impact of Covid-19 on children of all abilities including those with dyslexia.

The team secured funding worth almost £128,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Covid-19 scheme, which supports projects that assess the social impact of the pandemic, beating competition from hundreds of applicants.

It is believed to be the first research of its kind to be undertaken since the lockdown and will help inform the Welsh Government of how best to support home learning in the future.

The Welsh Government have also since agreed to fund a Welsh language version of the project, to be developed and rolled out during the autumn, supplementing classroom teaching. This project will be in partnership with the North Wales schools organisation, GwE.

Lessons focus on language and literacy using a range of online teaching methods that include one-to-one teaching and some independent learning through fun and interactive lesson packages.

Bethan, whose husband Christopher is also a keyworker, working in the animal feed industry, said the course had been hugely beneficial for her children, who attended a keyworker hub in Gronant, Prestatyn, serving five rural schools, once she returned to work. Their son is soon to start the programme:

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“Lucas will be doing the one-to-one lessons shortly. He is much harder to engage so it will be interesting to see the difference. He’s going into Year 6 and I know we had things planned ready for high school and I do worry about the effect coronavirus has had on his learning. Katie is going into Year 4 and so she has the extra time to catch up.

“Lockdown was a very long period of time. There need to be alternatives in place, either facilities or online learning, just in case. This is an opportunity for the children but it is also a very worthwhile research area and would make me more reassured in the event of a future lockdown.”

Dr Jones, an expert in reading and dyslexia, is working alongside collaborators Drs. Cameron Downing, Marketa Caravolas, and Joshua Payne with the assistance of research officer, Caspar Wynne.

The research and teaching is being carried out by nine research assistants, who are undergraduates and PhD students at the University and a further eight qualified teachers affiliated with the Miles Dyslexia Centre. Meanwhile, specialist teacher, Jo Dunton, co-ordinator at the Miles Dyslexia Centre, has played a crucial part in developing the curriculum.

“The learning curve for teachers at the moment is substantial,” explained Dr Jones.

“Sitting side by side with a pupil and pointing things out – the techniques of teaching we’ve taken for granted – are not always possible and we have to do it remotely and find alternative ways of doing things.”

“This project is about how best to do that but it’s also about continuing children’s enthusiasm for learning. Literacy is key to learning and is the gateway to knowledge. There’s research to show the size of your vocabulary determines how well you can understand and learn during reading so a large part of our programme focuses on vocabulary development.”

Researchers will compare the progress of those on the programme with a controlled group of children who have not had the same programme yet. This group will benefit from the course later in the autumn.

Research assistants are assessing the children’s learning progress using specialised language and literacy tests (such as phoneme awareness, letter knowledge, reading and spelling ability) from the MABEL battery, which was developed by project collaborator, Dr Markéta Caravolas from Bangor’s School of Psychology.

“Parents were very keen to get involved. Some friends in England jumped at the chance of having a professional teacher work with their child during lockdown,” said Dr Jones, whose two sons, Rhodri, eight, and Ifan, six, have been joining in with the programme and helping to test-run the curriculum.

“Many parents have high-pressure jobs which they’re having to do from home.”

The research, which will result in the development of a new website where the resources will be freely available to teachers, will help the Welsh Government prepare teachers in the event of further sudden school closures.

“I think there will be a shift to online learning after this. Schools may have to close again if there is a second surge.” said Dr Jones.

“There are also children who refuse to go to school and children who cannot because of chronic illness. Our methodology will not just be relevant to instances of full school closure but also to these isolated cases.”

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