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Virtual schooling

Thursday October 5, 2006

Anthea Rowan

Until I was seven, I lived on a farm in Africa ? sixty miles from the nearest city, and ? by association ? school. Until I was six, therefore, my mother taught me at home, with the aid of Postal Primary, a correspondence course aimed at the four to sixes. Several mornings a week I sat at the dining table with my mother and my younger brother ? for as long as he was interested ? ?doing school?.† I learned to read and marvelled at Janet and John?s improbably English lives (red double-decker buses, dogs that never needed dipping for ticks and rivers that ran crystal clear). When I outgrew Mrs Graham?s Postal Primary, which came up with the rest of the mail on the train from Mombasa, I was sent away to boarding school, which was where I remained throughout.

Recently my husband and I had cause to consider what we might do if we were forced to relocate from Arusha, where our children attend a delightful and very good international school as day scholars. Would we send them to boarding school? And if so, where? England? At £8,000 a term per child that option wasn?t ours to consider. To South Africa, where it?s cheaper? The children ? and particularly our eldest ? are entrenched in an essentially European curriculum, so to switch as Ben embarks on his IGCSE course seemed too great a risk to take at this stage.† In the end, happily, we didn?t have to move.
But educating children abroad can be difficult. Not all expatriate families live in areas that boast a selection of good schools that support an English or even international curriculum; we are fortunate. And not all expatriate families can afford ? or want ? to send their children ?home? to board.

Andrew Liggat is a Royal Air Force officer currently serving in Germany. He was posted there a year ago, along with his wife and two daughters: Bethan (13) and Ellen (11). Although there was a Ministry of Defence (MoD) sponsored primary school to cater for Ellen, Andrew and his wife were dismayed to find that the only options for Bethan were to board either in England or at an MoD-sponsored school at Rheindahlen, fours hours drive away. Until the family moved to Germany, both girls were state educated and lived at home. ?I believe?, says Andrew, ?that a sound family-orientated upbringing is an important part of a child's social development.?

Since nobody was happy with the boarding option, the family investigated home schooling; their research revealed a number of US-based ?virtual? schools ? cyber schools where children are taught via the internet ? and finally a UK-based one.
When Russian-born Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova was questioned by the press about her excellent literacy levels and fluency in English, she responded that she was a student at a virtual high school in the United States and as such was able to continue her education despite a punishing tennis timetable. Virtual school is the home school of yesteryear all grown up.

The Liggat?s choice, Interhigh, a non-profit-making organisation that began in September 2005, has seven full-time staff and 80 registrations ? double the number they had at the beginning of the year. It has just been granted ?new provider? status by the Open and Distance Quality Learning Council and is working towards full accreditation in Spring 2007. The curriculum, based on an English/Welsh secondary school (years 7 to 11), culminates in the children sitting IGCSEs (in any British council office). It hopes to facilitate the International Baccalaureate in the next two years. The school day is limited to 2?3 hours in a real-time, ie live, virtual classroom (so fast and reliable internet access is essential, with a headset to that they can participate in class discussions), and the school calendar follows that of the conventional English school year. School fees are £605 a term, plus VAT.

My concerns were twofold: how much parental involvement was necessary during the school day? Would I have to forfeit my own working hours (and valuable income) in order to support my children during lesson time? Not at all, says Interhigh co-founder Paul Daniell. ?Parental input is mainly just about being in the background to offer advice and homework help.?

And what of peer contact, I venture? That, Paul concedes, is difficult, ?but our pupils have built up camaraderie by sharing lessons and hearing each other speak. They stay in contact with each other by email and discussion boards set up by the school for social and work interaction.? Andrew Liggat agrees that ?whilst there are obvious limitations to an internet-based school (lack of social interaction, or physical education) we have found Interhigh to be an excellent alternative to regular schooling, given our particular circumstances. We are pleased with Bethan's progress so far and feel confident that her Interhigh experience will hold her in good stead when she returns to mainstream education on our return to the UK?. He added that the appointed British school inspector for Germany visited the family in June and was encouraged and impressed with the format, standard of work and, especially, Bethan's progress.† Ellen joins her older sister at Interhigh in September.

Students are registered in virtual schools for a number of reasons ? because they don?t live in England, like the Liggats (Interhigh teaches children in India and Spain. Briteschool and First College, two other UK-based real-time virtual schools also teach children in Spain, as well as Turkey and the Far East) or because conventional school simply isn?t an option. Children with disabilities or ill-health, or those who have been badly bullied, or who lack the confidence to cope with a traditional school, have helped home schooling to grow steadily in Britain over the last twenty years (some estimates suggest that up to 1% of the school population is being educated at home). A virtual classroom can offer better structure, and interest, to a child?s school day at home than a parent/child home school.

Briteschool is the first live online school in the UK to provide lessons for students at primary level, offering support for home-educated upper-primary children (at Key Stage 2 of the UK national curriculum) in maths, literacy and the other subjects, through to secondary, where seven IGCSE subjects are offered. Primary classes take place two mornings a week, secondary classes four mornings. Briteschool also offers BriteNiteSchool, which teaches two courses in English as a foreign language and a course in digital photography.

Dom Knowles, head teacher of Briteschool, expounds the advantages of virtual schooling: "Class sizes are limited to twelve for primary support, and fifteen for secondary lessons. Students get individualised lessons and don't suffer from distractions, the stress of bullying or an onerous struggle to and around their school."

Shan Jayran gives her reasons for founding First College: ?Our son was completely home educated. By the time he was 12 we began to feel that although it was working well and nothing seemed wrong, he needed something more.? Noticing that he responded well to a local creative writing group, carefully preparing impressive work and becoming animated when he talked about writing projects, Shan considered this might be the result of the stimulus of outside teachers. ?But none of us felt that all the extra baggage of a school was welcome or helpful.? She searched and found nothing that appealed, so she created First College, the supplementation of home schooling with outside teachers, which boasts 20 pupils, with a maximum of 45.

Shan says: ?Sometimes I listen to a parent on the phone to me saying ?But I'm worried about her/him being stuck on a computer and isolated all day?. Understandable until you see the school actually happening. Because as I listen to those words I am seeing students chatting away together about their lessons, homework, pets, families and hobbies. The community aspect of what we do is almost more important than the subject learning!?

These schools do seem to be creating healthy relationships between students in cyberspace ? and bridging an apparently unbridgeable gap. At the end of last term Interhigh performed its school play on the internet . . . a world first. Would I ? with all I?ve learned about virtual schools ? enroll my children if I had to? If it meant avoiding a boarding school on the other side of the world, then yes. Absolutely.


InterHigh School
Contact Jacqui or Paul Daniell
Tel†† 18
Fax† 14

Contact Dom Knowles

First College
Contact Shan Jayran

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