The Virtual School

The pandemic brought devastation and disruption across the world and with it, businesses and educational institutions were forced to bring everything online with virtual schools. With just two days’ notice, schools, colleges and universities were told they must go from traditional face-to-face learning to remote education – something that was alien for many. But not for all schools.

Since 2005, King’s InterHigh has been delivering its education online to thousands of students from the age of three all the way until 18 years of age, following the British curriculum of primary and secondary schools. It is considered the original online school and it currently caters for more than 3,500 students worldwide, spanning over 105 countries.

Educate recently spoke to executive headteacher, Ashley Harrold, to find out how it all began and how it compares to traditional schools.

Ashley Harrold explains: “We were born from the idea that an ‘internet school’ could be an effective solution for children not thriving in their local school or suiting a more traditional education environment. Virtual learning is today a much more familiar concept, but as a far cry from the panicked pandemic experience, we are a school designed for online, and have been perfecting our online learning methods and curating technologies for many years.”

It became King’s InterHigh following an acquisition by Inspired Education Group in May 2021. It brought together two online schools, combining InterHigh’s experience in online education with a 50-year legacy in delivering academic excellence from the King’s College schools.

The online school meets the needs of many. Students can access their education outside of traditional school hours, which is ideal for those pursuing careers in sport, entrepreneurship, acting or presenting. It is also beneficial to those with additional needs.

Ashley adds: “A huge variety of students can benefit from King’s InterHigh’s online offering, including those with complex needs, pupils seeking a British or international education overseas, those travelling due to parental careers or lifestyles, students recovering from bullying, or who suffer from anxiety.”

The idea of an online school may sound somewhat isolating or lonely – in 2021 the Edurio Pupil Learning Experience and Wellbeing Review reported that 25 per cent of students, out of 45,000 surveyed, felt lonely whilst learning during the pandemic.

You may also think that learners lack the social aspect usually found in a classroom or during break and lunch times, but according to research by the UK Safer Internet Centre in 2018, it revealed the internet plays a pivotal and positive role in how young people develop relationships and maintain their social lives.

He says: “Many students bond over their similar reasons for joining our online school. For example, those pursuing exciting careers may have never met another young person like themselves. Yet here, they can find many students excelling in many different industries outside school hours. This helps them connect and support each other.

“Students are also able to have fun in class and be themselves online. This helps them form friendships. Through group break-out sessions, one-to-one projects, and whole class activities, technology is still able to provide a social aspect for children.

“For example, the instant messenger style chat, virtual common rooms and social media platforms are specifically designed to help students share best practice, and socialise, but in a way that is safe. Additionally, the school offers various virtual reality and gamified learning apps that replicate the ‘real-world’ and help make learning more innovative, engaging and collaborative, which in turn, helps to build key skills – both academically and personally.”

To bridge any gaps, the school holds various events for students, families and staff. This includes special interest courses, clubs and societies; online coffees for parents; virtual assemblies, including guest speakers; quiz nights for staff; and surprise phone calls from celebrity ambassadors.

The advantages of an online school for children are vast. Ashley says: “Other benefits include not only enhancing academic opportunities, but also championing strong pastoral and wellbeing support, particularly as students experience and manage change in other aspects of their lives while moving or travelling. Students can benefit from 1:1 guidance and advice from dedicated tutors.

“The results speak for themselves; King’s InterHigh alumni have achieved impressive feats, in part by virtue of being able to schedule their education around their interests and careers.”

Charlotte Parsons is currently studying for her A-levels. She joined King’s InterHigh as she felt her needs and passions weren’t being met in a mainstream school. She is a budding entrepreneur and businesswoman who is hoping to shake up the equestrian world with her business partner and mum.

She says: “King’s InterHigh is different. My teachers and peers understand and appreciate my needs. They accept everyone is different and they celebrate everything that makes us unique. I feel I can finally be an individual and be myself!

“I never feel like I’m ‘catching-up’ with schooling because I never feel I’m behind. I’m simply in control of my learning and can put my needs and learning style first, which makes me feel organised and excited about the future.”

She adds: “The flexibility of an online education has also meant I can take extra courses outside school, as I can focus on my studies whenever best suits me. This freedom has allowed me to prepare fully for my future. I am training for British Horse Society care courses, I have volunteered with the Riding for the Disabled Association where I help children interact with horses, and gained qualifications with the Young Equestrian Learner Awards scheme, where I learnt to care for horses and handlers! All of these opportunities have made me so excited for my future.”

But what about parents? How will they know their child is receiving the very best education and support when they aren’t physically going into school? Classrooms allow children to build confidence, discipline and form important relationships.

Ashley continues: “There are many benefits to parents, including 24-hour access to attendance data, reports, and communications through our virtual platform. Additionally, and arguably most important, is providing them with the peace of mind that their child is confident and happy while studying and, in some cases, that their child is healthy.

“For example, the Geeting family travelled the world to support the health of their child, Skye, who has a rare immune system deficiency. After years of searching for medical assistance to help give Skye the medical attention he desperately needed, the family eventually found a doctor with the right expertise based in Portugal. As soon as they located this doctor, the whole family moved from Macau, China to the Algarve. Yet, they wanted to ensure Skye’s education was not impacted by this relocation and worried about finding a school which taught in English while situated in Portugal.

“To overcome these uncertainties and the stresses it caused Skye’s parents, they enrolled Skye here. Suddenly, their concerns vanished as they realised, they could truly put their son’s health first with the peace of mind that his education was secured.”

Similar to the private school model, there is a price to pay to ‘attend’ this virtual school. The current school fees for the academic year 2021/22 are from £2,750 at Key Stage 2 and up to £4,895 for 3 A-level subjects in Key Stage 5.

Whilst most aspects of the school are predominantly online, the personal touch isn’t lost, and students and their families do get to meet staff and fellow students face-to-face.

“Throughout the school year, there are many opportunities for our school community to meet in person as well as these virtual events,” Ashely explains. “Students and teachers come together at activity weekends, during events such as science practical days, and I travel myself to connect with students and families for an opportunity to meet the executive headteacher.

“Being part of the global Inspired group of schools also awards our students the opportunity to meet face-to-face and enjoy in-person experiences with exchange programmes and summer camps across our 70 schools in five continents.”

Knowing children are online for long periods of the day, may raise some safeguarding concerns. In 2021, Internet Matters reported that 68 per cent of parents, out of 2,000 who were surveyed, admitted they were concerned about their children spending too much time online. However, the school ensures the most advanced technology is in place to keep children safe.

Ashley says: “It is designed specifically for education purposes, meaning that its instant messenger style chat, virtual common rooms and social media platforms are completely safe, with teachers able to monitor use and manage access permissions.”

The pandemic has enabled schools and colleges to operate in the digital world, and should such a tragedy happen again, they now have the infrastructure in place to move online at the click of a button. Whilst it will never replace traditional face-to-face learning, is there room in the market for more online schools? Ashely thinks so if it is done correctly.

He says: “The pandemic inevitably forced change and provided the opportunity to raise awareness of alternative ways of teaching and learning – including online schooling. Of course, there are challenges that need to be addressed, including education inequality, access to digital devices, and more funding for schools. However, the potential of online schooling shouldn’t be forgotten and there is now an opportunity to upskill teachers in developing their knowledge and understanding of teaching via blended learning, fully online or distance learning provision. This will help present technology as part of a long-term strategy.

“While some schools will inevitably slip back to the same processes, others will be more open to greater use of online provision – and the same can likely be said for parents. Therefore, if schools look to adopt more synchronous learning and interactive flipped classrooms, they may be able to offer a more robust experience to a generation that is very used to, and happy to, engage online.”

For King’s InterHigh, it is already one step-ahead and is now looking at other ways it can revolutionise learning.

Ashley concludes: “Our vision for the future is to continue to innovate in the online school space – and we are delighted to launch the world’s first fully online IB Diploma for September 2022. Our students will be the first cohort to study the acclaimed curriculum entirely online, and we are opening opportunities for students from anywhere in the world to access a high-quality IB qualification taught by expert teachers.

“We are also working to promote the use of technology in education to benefit students and the entire education sector. The Government’s latest Schools White Paper emphasised the potential of education technology to transform and accelerate learning, particularly as we recover from the pandemic which has had such a devastating impact on students and teachers alike. We echo this sentiment, and are driving technology innovation forward in education, working with the Inspired group to launch the world’s first school in the Metaverse with Virtual Reality (VR). The technology will provide further opportunities for global collaboration and inspire learning.”

Watch this (digital) space.

You may also like...