From education to employment

Building an online school

There is no doubt that the post-16 education landscape is changing. In March this year, the Chancellor Philip Hammond pledged £500-million in the budget for the introduction of new T-Levels. Next month (August) we will see the first results of the new A-Levels. The way further education (FE) is delivered is changing too with more and more pupils opting to study AS and A-Levels online. In this article, we focus on the UK’s leading online secondary school – InterHigh and look at how it has grown, how it operates and the challenges it faces.

InterHigh is the UK’s first ever online school. It was set up from a converted cottage in Powys, Wales, by former secondary school teacher Paul Daniell (pictured) and his wife Jacqueline. It launched in 2005 with just 23 pupils on its books, but has grown considerably and today teaches over 900 students worldwide.

A revolutionary teaching model

InterHigh teaches pupils the full UK national curriculum from Key Stage 3, right the way through to IGCSEs, AS and A-Levels. InterHigh’s Sixth Form College offers 18 Cambridge Examination Board subjects at AS and A-Level, with the chance to supplement these with other vocational or specialist training. Due to InterHigh’s online status, it means that there is little constraint on its timetable and students can choose almost any combination of AS and A-Level subjects. Pupils can also combine studying a subject at InterHigh with their studies at a traditional school or college. For example, if the pupil cannot find the subject they want locally, they may be able to find it externally at InterHigh.

InterHigh’s approach is to encourage flexible independent learning which they believe gives students a great foundation for the way in which they will be required to study if they go on to FE and HE. Typically, at InterHigh, if a student is studying three A-Level courses they are only required to have 12 hours of online classroom study a week. InterHigh says that being online allows their teachers to focus on teaching for an entire lesson without the distractions, disruptions or the behaviour issues sometimes experienced in physical schools and colleges.

Real-time, live online lessons are led by experienced teachers on a timetable which usually runs from 9.30am until 3pm, Monday to Friday. On most days, pupils study no more than two subjects. The aim is to help pupils consolidate learning and give them more energy to do homework, part-time jobs or extra-curricular activities. All lessons are recorded and archived and pupils can access them 24/7 online to prepare for exams and homework. InterHigh has found that this approach across the school leads to rapid progress and with some younger pupils taking A-Levels earlier. 

Does size matter online?

New UK Government guidelines announced in March place restrictions on Academies setting up sixth forms. New sixth forms should only be allowed to open if they have at least 200 students and offer 15 A-Level subject. Some FE policy experts welcomed the restrictions stating that the smaller a sixth form is, the worse it performs.
The number of pupils taking AS and A-Levels at InterHigh’s sixth form college in 2016/17 falls well below this level at 92, but as seen later in this article, there are differences in the way it is funded. Class sizes at InterHigh are kept to a maximum of 18 pupils up to IGCSE and 15 for A-levels. The idea is that along with consolidated learning, pupils get more one to one attention than they would in a traditional class, even though they interact with teachers via textboxes or a microphone rather than face to face.

On average InterHigh students graduate from university with an upper second-class degree or higher. Many of their former pupils go on to Oxford, Cambridge and Russell Group universities.

The challenges faced by an online Sixth Form College

In her speech at the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) last month (June), Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman talked about the curriculum changes, funding and future challenges faced in delivering FE. So, are the challenges for an online sixth form college different?

Despite InterHigh’s growth and undoubted successes, one of the biggest challenges it faces is the ongoing campaign to be recognised as an online school by Ofsted. It also has to contend with perceptions and concerns that online schools lack pupil social interaction and physical activity compared to pupils attending physical schools. InterHigh is keen to point out that it is not trying to replace every physical school in the UK and the types of pupils that study there do so for a wide range of reasons.

InterHigh is favoured by children that are sporting prodigies, actors, singers and dancers who need to travel and fit their studies in around their training and performances. Their teaching model has also benefitted children who are ill, autistic, victims of bullying or unable to settle at mainstream schools, as well as families living around the world who want to give their children a British curriculum education.

In terms of communication and social skills, the way young people interact with each other in the 21st century is very much technology driven via tablets, computers and mobile phones. InterHigh also point out that its online school is a community. Each pupil has their own unique profile and control panel from which they can engage with other pupils, just like on popular social media platforms. Their interaction is monitored and encouraged by staff during lessons and there are clubs and societies within InterHigh which pupils can join, as well as accessing an online library and virtual common room. There is also a chance to meet up physically at revision breaks and school trips.

Best of both worlds

InterHigh has also worked with an international school in Spain to provide a British education for its pupils. Students study at a specially equipped room at the school along with other InterHigh pupils and then participate in a range of conventional lessons and activities such as art, cooking and PE in the afternoon.

Funding forms an important part of quality FE delivery

The role of funding plays an important part in the delivery of quality FE whether it’s online or not. Amanda Spielman also told the SCFA that post-16 education in England has “borne the greatest weight of education cuts in recent years.” She added that there is always going to be a “tipping point” at which the funding of colleges affects the curriculum they can offer and highlighted a recent SFCA survey which found that:

  • Two-thirds of its members had dropped courses due to funding concerns.
  • More than a third reported having to drop a modern foreign language course.
  • Nearly two thirds have removed or reduced enrichment activities.

In contrast, InterHigh has extended its curriculum and seen pupil numbers rise to 200 in 2009, 414 in February 2015 and up to over 570 in December the same year. There are now 900 students enrolled at the school across the seven school years.

The way InterHigh is funded has played a role in this. As an independent school, parents pay between £2,700 and £3,000 a year depending on whether pupils are in Key Stage 3 or are taking IGCSEs and A-Levels. InterHigh’s potential was spotted by investors and in 2015 it was acquired by Wey Education Plc for just over £750,000. Paul Daniell InterHigh founder and Head Teacher100x100It has floated on the stock market raising funds which have been pumped back into the school. In April, Wey Education showed an increase in turnover of 73% over the six months to February 2017 compared to the same period the year before. Continued investment in Wey Education’s portfolio, including InterHigh, is planned with aims to increase the number or courses it offers, its size and reach abroad.

Paul Daniell, InterHigh founder and Head Teacher

Related Articles