How one academy used the lockdown to transition to remote learning

Sukhjot Dhami

Sukhjot Dhami is Principal at Beacon Hill Academy in the West Midlands. Beacon Hill Academy is a mixed Secondary School of over 1,000 learners aged 11 to 16, in Sedgley, near Dudley, in the West Midlands. It is part of the local Dudley Academies Trust.

Website: www.beaconhillacademy.org.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

When the country needed to close its schools due to coronavirus, like many schools nationally, Beacon Hill Academy found this challenging. All staff and learners in Beacon Hill Academy already had both email addresses and Active Directory login details, but our technology implementation in lessons was limited at this point. School closures forced us to accelerate using digital technology to support pupils’ learning and development.

We had started to move staff to the Cloud two years earlier, by migrating 90% of staff files per department to SharePoint sites. We were also encouraging the Senior Leadership Team to use Microsoft Teams at a basic level to collaborate on files and communicate with each other, but there was no use of Microsoft Teams in class lessons. 

As an Academy we had implemented TeamViewer for a small number of our SLT and admin staff to access computers remotely, but this was often unreliable and difficult to use, especially if the physical computer devices had been switched off.

Finding fast paced solutions

One of the biggest challenges we faced was upskilling staff to using Microsoft Teams, as many had not used it before. We also had not yet fully embraced the technology for our pupils. The DfE are offering schools free funding for training and installation of one of two digital education platforms, and after a discussion with our long-standing IT partner, RM, we confirmed that we would operate Microsoft Teams across the school – for staff and pupils.  

RM proved a great support for us at this time – they helped us reset all of our learner’s passwords to something memorable which they would already know, without having to send them to each learner individually in the post. This reduced a lot of the support queries immediately and like many young people, our learners were quick to adopt new technologies. They also had a web page with a number of videos and “Top Tips” that helped them learn more about the software.

As soon as pupils knew what their new passwords were, many were able to get on to Microsoft Teams and begin learning straight away, with little to no guidance. Where a learner did need some support, RM have been there for them, and – when appropriate – have been able to call on their relationships with Microsoft for the more complex issues.

Beacon Hill Academy has also been faced – like many schools – with challenges around ICT access for learners who do not have laptops. The DfE scheme to provide free laptops and 4G routers for disadvantaged learners has helped and we have also been creating work that can be accessed and used via mobile phones, converting voice over PowerPoints into MP4 files and using Microsoft Forms rather than worksheets, to engage with learners. Alongside this we’ve been offering free laptop hire, internet dongles, reward incentives and regular phone calls home to support families with home learning.

Looking to the future

The lockdown period proved challenging for everyone, but the education sector has adapted quickly and efficiently to support learners throughout school closures. We have found that support from parents and carers is key during these tough times and we made every effort to engage with parents and carers in order to help support their children at home. This was successful with many parents reporting they feel more confident using the online software to support their child.

It comes down to having the focus and commitment to move staff and learners who had never used software like Microsoft Teams before to producing all of their remote lessons on this platform. After some initial challenges we saw a significantly increased proportion of learners accessing and engaging with the software week on week.

As we now prepare to re-open our gates to all learners, we are determined to continue to use Microsoft teams within our lessons and across the school. I personally hope that schools up and down the country further embrace technology in their classrooms. Our aim is to ‘develop inspirational schools which instil ambition and desire in young learners, open their minds, widen their horizons and equip them to succeed in a challenging world’ and I think technology is a great tool in helping us – and others – to achieve this.

If you want to find advice and support to get your school online and make the most of digital education platforms, visit The Key today, or if you just want some advice on what to consider, RM have produced a very useful webpage on choosing the right integration partner.

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