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Parental engagement enhanced: The response of parents in a sample of Northern Ireland’s schools to the emergency remote teaching provided through two periods of school lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic

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Published onDec 22, 2023
Parental engagement enhanced: The response of parents in a sample of Northern Ireland’s schools to the emergency remote teaching provided through two periods of school lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic


This paper draws evidence from schools in Northern Ireland (NI) which entered for an annual awards scheme, the NI Schools ICT Excellence Awards, in 2021-2022. This self-selecting sample is therefore representative in a very specific way: that is to say, from those self-nominating in the belief that they make award-winning provision for the benefit of their learners.

The summary of evidence indicates that the school/parent partnership was considerably enhanced in these schools through two periods of lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in a range of ways that have since been sustained, to the advantage of both the schools and the pupils’ parents, guardians, and carers. The learning impact and outcomes, while not representative of all of Northern Ireland’s schools, are nonetheless indicative of what can be, and has been, achieved through effective school leadership, a strong commitment to professional development by teachers, engagement by learners, and by the positive attitude of parents to the value of educational provision.

Keywords: parental engagement; response to Covid-19 pandemic; emergency remote teaching; ICT excellence awards; Covid ‘keepers’; Northern Ireland managed service

Part of the Special Issue Parents/guardians, education and digital technologies

1. Introduction

Schools world-wide faced a significant disruption of education from the Covid-19 pandemic over the two years from March 2020 (European Commission, 2022; Patrinos, Vegas, & Carter-Ra, 2022). The disruption was no less in Northern Ireland. While responses to the challenge of ensuring educational continuity varied (Lindblad, et al., 2021) the best examples which emerged in Northern Ireland (NI) were of particular note: displaying courage, professionalism, determination, creativity, and innovation.

The NI Schools ICT Excellence Awards (the Awards), which have run since 2015, adopted a theme for the 2021-2022 school year (Capita, 2022) which set out to recognise and celebrate the effective and successful responses to lockdown by integrating digital technologies to provide continuity of learning, teaching and wellbeing in primary, post-primary (secondary) and special schools, and in EOTAS (Education Other Than At Schools) centres (which provide an alternative education service for young people who find it difficult to engage in mainstream schools). (Where the term ‘school’ is used throughout this paper it refers to both schools and to EOTAS centres.)

The Awards are facilitated by the Education Network NI (ENNI) Innovation Forum (the Innovation Forum) and are sponsored by Capita Learning and C2k. C2k is the public sector managed information and communication technologies (ICT) service (Department of Education for Northern Ireland, 2021) which provides digital technology services in all NI grant-aided schools. Capita Learning is the private sector service provider. The judging team of five for the Awards in 2021-2022 comprised: the Independent Chair of the Innovation Forum (and author of this paper); a University Professor of Technology Enhanced Learning; the Head of Service for Professional Learning and Development at the NI Education Authority; a University PGCE Course Director; and an Independent Education IT Consultant, who devised the Awards scheme.

The response to the Awards from all schools which, at the time, continued to be under daily pressure, surprised the judging team, with more entries - 75 in total - than for previous years of the Awards, and all of them considered to be of a high standard. The names of the winning and highly commended schools/centres in 2021-2022, together with a brief video case study of the winning schools, are available in the judges’ report (Smith, & Anderson, 2021).

By entering the Awards competition, schools were consenting to the practice that summaries of the information supporting their entries would be made public in a 17,000-word judges’ report, at a prestigious Awards ceremony, through associated press release publicity and by creating published video case studies. The evidence drawn upon for this paper is based on the already-published judges’ report (Smith, & Anderson, 2021) drafted by two of the judges, one of whom is the author of this paper, and signed-off by all five judges.

The evidence from the Excellence Awards of the most effective online solutions, as judged by the participants who entered for the Awards, and as evaluated by the judges, while clearly and understandably a self-selected sample, is representative of what is likely to be the most developed in Northern Ireland and should be regarded as a tribute to just what can be and may be achieved by schools using digital and online technologies by effective leaders, professional teachers, engaged learners and committed parents and carers. (It should be noted that the term ‘parent’ in this paper refers also to guardians and carers.)

2. Methodology

The qualitative data analysis method underpinning this paper arises from the judging criteria and scoring and moderation process adopted by the team of five judges, which makes for an interesting evaluative methodological approach.

The judging process adopted a thematic analysis (Braun, & Clarke, 2006) of a set of texts, comprising the 2,000-word written submission provided by each of the schools entering for the Awards, together with follow-up semi-structured online interviews conducted by the judges with individuals from the 19 schools short-listed from the entry field. The whole text evidence base comprised: 150,000 words of written submissions, augmented by 40 hours of recorded/transcribed online interviews with 54 senior school leaders, 65 teachers, 64 school pupils, and 54 parents from the shortlisted schools. The judges’ report (Smith, & Anderson, 2022) summarises all of the evidence and provides the prime source for this paper and for the findings summarised as follows.

Acting in an evaluative research methodology approach, the five judges closely examined the data to identify themes, topics, ideas, and patterns of meaning repeatedly emerging which were, in their collective view, indicative of effective practices. The evaluation of evidence was based on participatory practice, involving the judges as external researchers through discussions with the key individuals in the shortlisted schools (Zuber-Skerritt, 1996). The five judges, acting through a process parallel to a Delphi approach (Nworie, 2011), acted independently to score each entry against the criteria for the 2020-2021 Awards. The five sets of scores were aggregated and moderated, and the top scoring 19 of the entry field were shortlisted.

The short-listed schools were involved in semi-structured online interviews with the judges, of at least two hours in each case, which took place in December 2021 and January 2022. Based on the interview evidence, the judges, again acting independently, adjusted, where necessary, their earlier scores gained from reading the submitted text entries, and then further aggregated and moderated the results to determine 13 awards (in highly commended and winning categories) across each of the four sets of: primary schools, post-primary (secondary) schools, special schools and EOTAS providers.

The scoring system, which applied to both short-listing and evaluation of the short-listed entries through online interviews, was balanced across the following five criteria:

  • Leadership: the initial response of the school to the Covid-19 challenge, informal and/or formal reflection on the effectiveness of the initial response, and continuing action to promote improvement.

  • The switch to remote learning and teaching: the guidance and support for teachers to plan and to prepare remote/blended/hybrid teaching and to provide an online presence, with due care for their own wellbeing.

  • The support for the learners: to adapt to new learning experiences, including with due care for their wellbeing.

  • The means of ensuring continuity in teaching and learning: including the curriculum to build the learners’ future skills.

  • The advice, guidance and support given to parents: on how to secure, support and maintain the engagement and wellbeing of the learners, and how the school and home partnerships were affected.

For each of the five criteria, evaluative prompts in textual form were provided to guide the judges. The same prompts were used to shape the semi-structured online interviews. In the context of this paper, the evaluative prompts, relating to the criterion of parental engagement, enquired into:

  • How to secure, support and maintain the engagement and wellbeing of the learners.

  • How the school/home partnerships were affected.

  • How parents were engaged and advised in their support of their children’s learning.

  • How parents were advised about e-safety and wellbeing during home-based learning.

  • Adaptations, for example, in how parent/teacher meetings were sustained, and changes in practice that have been sustained post-Covid.

3. Policy context

At the time of the two periods of school lockdown, the common media tropes across the United Kingdom (UK) were about ‘learning loss’. For example, studies which focused on academic attainment tended to dominate media coverage (Corless, & Clarence-Smith, 2023). Studies (such as Newton, 2021), while acknowledging that their findings, at least in England, varied region by region, defined:

…learning loss (and gain) counterfactually, as the difference between the overall level of attainment that a student would have achieved by the end of their course of study—if they had not been affected by the pandemic – and the overall level of attainment that they actually achieved in its wake. (p.1)

In Northern Ireland, the Awards took place in the context of a NI Department of Education strategy, entitled the Engage Programme, to provide schools with ear-marked funding (Department of Education for Northern Ireland, The Engage Programme, 2020). The Engage Programme aimed to limit any long-term adverse impact of COVID-19 by supporting pupils’ learning and their engagement on their return to school through the provision of high quality one to one, small group or team-teaching support. The Department also recognised that, beyond any academic loss, school closures may have affected the wider learning and development of children and young people and their social, emotional, and mental health and wellbeing. Furthermore, it recognised that while some pupils coped and engaged well with remote learning, others returned to school demotivated and requiring of support to re-engage in learning. The Engage Programme therefore aimed to help develop the resilience, capacity, and independence of pupils to respond more confidently to the challenge of learning and to successfully self-regulate - in short, to develop their agency as learners.

The Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI, 2021) evaluated the Engage Programme and concluded that improvement resulted in a range of pupil outcomes, including pupil attainment, motivation to learn, confidence and engagement (p.3). Furthermore, the ETI reported that:

Teachers benefitted from the opportunities afforded through the programme to enhance their professional learning, most commonly through upskilling in digital learning strategies. (p.4)

The high number of schools entering for the Awards in 2020-2021 did so to showcase their endeavours, supported by their own resources and those of the Engage Programme, to respond, through digital and online learning actions, to the challenge posed by the pandemic’s impact on continuity of learning. In the view of the five judges, based on evaluating the entries, the response to the challenge in those schools was of an exceptionally high standard.

The fact that, uniquely, a managed, integrated computer network provision with online and digital tools (provided by Capita Learning and C2k) are standard in all 1,200 grant-aided schools, puts NI schools in an enviable position - an important factor in facilitating their responses. At very short notice, schools were positioned to move rapidly into a world of remote and hybrid learning, featuring both on-line and off-line activities facilitated by the use of technology, alongside both synchronous and asynchronous approaches to teaching. This, combined with the collective professionalism, commitment, ingenuity and creativity of education service leaders, teachers, classroom assistants, pupils and parents saw the network and tools exploited to ensure extraordinary levels of engagement and continuity of learning, minimising the potential ‘loss’ caused by long periods of lockdown seen elsewhere.

4. Findings

Arising from their evaluation of the schools’ experiences, the judges’ collective thematic analysis of the qualitative data identified 16 areas of interest, nine of which focus on the role of digital technology in parental engagement. While the judges’ report provides a fuller account of all of these findings, especially about school leadership, the professional growth of teachers and the development of agency by learners, this paper draws on the evidence bearing on home-based learning, where feedback from parents and the schools’ responses led to and supported improvements in learning engagement and outcomes. These were:

  • the role of technology in parental engagement;

  • overcoming access issues at home;

  • the choice of digital technology platforms;

  • patterns of online provision - reduced teaching contact time and/or reduced curriculum content versus ‘business as usual’;

  • pedagogic enhancement—innovations in the use of digital technologies that went beyond ‘traditional’ uses prior to the pandemic;

  • the flexibility of responses;

  • tracking the progress of the learners;

  • maintaining social interaction and promoting wellbeing; and

  • the effect of remote learning on pupils who struggled to deal with being kept away from school.

In the summary of evidence which follows, the judges, in their collective opinion, identified emerging themes, topics, ideas, and repeated patterns of meaning which were indicative of effective practice, in their view. It does not follow, however, that the findings summarised here were universally occurring or present in every text or recorded piece of interview evidence; there were limitations across the range, and especially in those entries to the Awards which were not shortlisted. However, in the shortlisted schools generally, the trend was that the relationship and partnership between parents, children and schools was being changed by the challenge of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and that the responses were leading to change for the better, as summarised as follows.

4.1 Parental engagement

The use of digital technology during both lockdowns, overall, both deepened and broadened communication and parental engagement. Almost every school interviewed described this as crucial to the success of their response.

The common feature of all choices of technology was to keep open the triangle (see Figure 1) of parent-school-child information, communication, and collaboration during a time when such support was critical and influential.

Figure 1: Parent-teacher-pupil engagement triangle

In primary schools in particular, the evidence from the written submissions and local knowledge was that, where the use of the Seesaw app ( was already well established, it became the medium of choice for parental communication and feedback. Parents reported that it provided facility throughout both lockdowns, albeit with different modes of use. In some schools, teacher-supported, asynchronous remote learning was preferred to synchronous, online teaching.

The purposes for which digital platforms were used broadened considerably during the pandemic. Parents said that they received online advice and tuition to help them to understand how, for example: phonics teaching worked; why fractions are taught the way they are today - rather than how they were when most parents were at school; and how to access the various platforms that were key to synchronous and asynchronous lessons. Some parents regularly used online links to provide the teachers with evidence of children’s work at home, their task completion, and their learning attainment, to complement and reinforce what the children were already telling teachers about their progress. Parent/teacher consultation meetings, open days and course option choice evenings moved online. Schools filmed events which were webcast to encourage wellbeing and fitness activities for children and parents alike. Examples included cookery sessions in the kitchen, physical education challenges in the garden or out on the streets and parks (when Covid-19 regulations allowed), dance and musical competitions, fun quizzes, and themed school assemblies. Parents took part in regular online surveys to help the schools assess the value of the support provided, received helpdesk support with technical issues and discussed their challenges and difficulties in supporting home-based learning with teachers, so that advice could be provided.

The changes in social interaction with parents which occurred, almost overnight, were radical, especially in the timescale. Each party was, in effect, invited into the other’s homes through ‘live camera on’ synchronous online sessions, and even when using pre-recorded video sessions. Parents were drawn into three-way conversations with teacher and child that were mutually beneficial for all parties, and which helped to shape and improve, in significant ways, the responses of the schools while protecting the wellbeing of teacher, child and parent.

It was not difficult for the judges to imagine that, if such innovations in educational social interaction had been proposed in normal circumstances, the debate around such changes, and the objections which could have been raised, would have made it highly unlikely that they would ever have been attempted.

4.2 Access issues

One of the most complex challenges initially facing parents was to identify and mitigate access issues, which presented in many forms:

  • access to devices, including printers;

  • access to home wireless connectivity;

  • access to fast, synchronous, reliable broadband and onwards to the Internet;

  • competition for devices and/or connectivity as households with multiple siblings and/or ‘working from home parents’, all attempting to get online at the same time; and

  • access to suitable spaces within the home to facilitate learning, which might be as the result of cramped living conditions, houses of multiple occupation, and other environmental factors.

It was clear from the evidence that there were differences in the way these issues were understood and addressed by schools to facilitate parents. The judges found that:

  • some schools went into lockdown already knowing precisely the ‘access’ status at home for all their pupils;

  • others managed to audit home access just prior to the first lockdown;

  • some managed to audit it very soon after lockdown was announced; and

  • others only became aware of issues after some weeks into lockdown.

Those with the information to hand early into the period of school closure were far better placed to mitigate the pressures on homes than those who left their audit until much later. Being able to offer early remediation meant a large number of pupils who would otherwise have been significantly disadvantaged and who, as a result may well have become disengaged and anxious, were not.

How schools reacted to their audit information, however timely, was telling. Packs of hard copy materials were used temporarily to plug the gap. Others acted promptly and used their entire school ICT estate, together with cash donations, to address weaknesses in hardware provision and connectivity. They begged and borrowed kit and communications dongles from wherever they could. Many did not wait for the formal guidance or the additional digital devices which issued later from the education authorities.

4.3 The choice of digital technology platform

Another dilemma faced by schools and parents was the choice between using a range of digital platforms, or a single platform. It could be argued that the wide depth and breadth of the technology platforms and provision available in NI was both a blessing and a curse in lockdown, as many schools had multiple technology options on which to base their response, to deploy resources and to host on-line teaching. At the very least the options included:

  • Google’s G-Suite—Google Classroom as a VLE, Google Meet, Google Drive, Google Docs/Slides/Sheets;

  • Microsoft’s 365 offering—OneDrive, MS Teams, OneNote, SharePoint, MS Word, MS PowerPoint, MS Excel;

  • Fronter;

  • Blackboard’s Collaborate Ultra;

  • Zoom;

  • social media channels like YouTube and Twitter in particular, for video content and parental engagement;

  • applications common in primary schools, like SeeSaw in particular;

  • applications common in post-primary schools, like Kahoot in particular; and

  • the SIMS1 Parent App, which enables schools to provide information to parents in real-time.

Some schools used texting services to mobile telephones, and their own school Facebook accounts and websites. In many cases they supplemented online contact with parents through telephone calls and home visits, especially when adjusting to the use of an online environment was a challenge for parents. Several schools established webcast radio programmes and one (a small primary school – and the winner in that category) even created its own streaming media service to create a webcast ‘TV Channel’.

In this context, the judges found that:

  • Many schools decided early on to use a single platform and focus all the remote learning through it. In primary settings, when asynchronous activity was involved, this was often through SeeSaw, whilst many others, both primary and post-primary, focused on Google’s platform and made particular use of Google Classroom and Google Meet for both asynchronous and synchronous teaching and learning. Others moved quickly on to MS Teams for synchronous online teaching. Virtually every school made considerable use of pre-recorded lessons through whichever channel they chose.

  • Others used multiple channels to give learners and parents as many opportunities as possible to access learning materials, lessons and to provide support, pastoral contact, and social interaction with peers. These schools used evidence from parental surveys to decide what worked best and what to do next.

4.4 Patterns of online provision

A key difference in approach to online provision emerged early on. Some schools made an early decision to opt for reduced teaching contact and/or reduced curriculum content in an attempt to ease the pressures at home. In many cases, the decision to reduce from day one was presented as a virtue, though sometimes without clear explanation. More often than not it was a pragmatic response to the challenges teachers, learners and their parents encountered as they tried to adapt to remote teaching and learning.

On the other hand, those who began with a ‘Business as Usual’ (BAU) approach and did not initially reduce either teaching plans or class timetables stated clearly that they did not believe that they should reduce their provision. However, many of those who provided a normal timetable for synchronous online teaching found that they had to ease back, as adjusting to interacting online created an unsustainable pace for teachers, learners and, especially, parents.

The dichotomy was fascinating, with judges attempting to elicit evidence about which was the most effective strategy. It was of particular interest to note that the most effective providers had adapted, through experience and feedback, what they taught, to focus on key aspects of learning judged to be most important; that is to say, depth and skills, rather than breadth and volume. It emerged that while some in the ‘BAU’ group shifted to a reduced contact or a reduced content model to sustain engagement and accommodate the ability of parents to cope with supporting the learners, not all did so.

Learners interviewed (and parents talking about their children) often described how they much preferred being able to stay on a specific task or interest for extended periods of time, exploring it in more depth, rather than changing subjects/topics frequently as demanded by a less flexible school timetable. Even if the school decided on a reduced content approach, some learners acted independently and pursued areas of learning that interested them for longer than would normally have been possible.

One pattern did emerge: those who planned and implemented a graduated, incremental approach to both content and contact prospered more in respect of maintaining the levels of engagement of pupils and parents and minimising any learning deficit.

4.5 Pedagogic enhancement

There were major differences in the starting point for schools shortlisted, and therefore of the prior experience and expectations of parents. Many of the schools had been developing their uses of digital technology to support learning, including at home, over a long period. For these schools and their parents, the move to remote learning was almost seamless. Other schools were happy to acknowledge they were ‘off the pace’ prior to the first lockdown, but took huge strides between March and December 2020, saying that they had advanced developmentally ‘years’, in only months, spurred on by parental expectation.

Many schools described the first lockdown as being about ‘remote teaching’, that is, completely asynchronous activity with real-time contact being for pastoral/wellbeing reasons rather than for synchronous, online teaching and learning. For these schools, a significant element of their approach was supported by the use of printed packs of materials to overcome access issues found in the homes of many of their young people, including lack of printers.

At the other end of the continuum some went into the first lockdown with a. normal timetable of scheduled lessons, completely synchronously; the rationale was understandable, in that the school wanted pupils to have as ‘near normal’ an experience as possible. As one principal said:

We tried to make the transition to remote learning as seamless as possible by focusing on providing live, synchronous lessons that followed the normal school timetable. We felt that being able to see/hear the teacher teaching a normal lesson was so important in creating a sense of ‘business as usual’. Many lessons involved the teacher sharing their screen and interacting with pupils in a way that mimicked normal classroom lessons.

Others looked to a ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ approach from the start, with a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous activity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many who began synchronously reduced to a more blended, hybrid model as learners and parents reported that they could not cope with the demands, as home circumstances often made this impossible. Often, this reduction in synchronous activity was in response to parents’ feedback, as they were quick to alert schools to issues they were having in sustaining support for their children.

However, those who began with a full asynchronous model began to introduce synchronous online teaching as soon as was practical, usually from the start of the second lockdown. This change was driven by parental feedback and the need to provide more social interaction. As a teacher said:

The initial response to the challenge of interrupted teaching was… to pivot to TEAMS… almost instantaneous. The strategy established [varied] between Key Stages… Ultimately, we were not bringing our existing classroom to the virtual world, instead we are modifying our delivery in a way commensurate with the best research and the most recent thinking.

The judges found these diametrically opposed starting positions surprising, as it was possibly predictable that an optimal approach would be a blend of synchronous and asynchronous approaches. In the outcome of the judging, with only a few exceptions, blended responses were reported to be the most effective.

4.6 Flexibility of responses

It became clear to the judges that some schools were more effective in creating flexible arrangements when the parents became the key influencers in the planning process. When parents were engaged by the school in this way, home environment factors were being considered, beyond those of access, connectivity, and capability with using the technology, including, for example, some of the following:

  • competition at home where siblings needed to share access;

  • availability of suitable workspaces;

  • screen time;

  • the workload and the wellbeing of parents who were also homeworking;

  • key workers’ shift patterns;

  • the ability of parents to support learning;

  • comfort in exposing home circumstances (when the camera is on - what does it show?); and

  • the specific needs of children and parents with special needs.

Schools most in tune with these issues made compromises to ensure maximum flexibility in respect of the:

  • arrangements under which parents and pupils received work assignments—when work schedules were published/packs issued, options were provided in respect of the medium used;

  • recording live lessons so that pupils unable to attend timetabled sessions could, as an alternative, experience the face-to-face lessons outside real time;

  • arrangements under which pupils submitted their work for assessment, ranging from the same day, next day or weekly ‘drops’;

  • moving to a two-week timetable, providing the option for pupils to work during the day or the evening and/or spending longer on certain tasks; or

  • agreeing changes to teachers’ hours to make support to learners and parents available outside the school day (in some cases such support was provided by senior leadership team members).

Schools made a judgement that to do otherwise would have made it impossible for some parents to support their children’s learning during the ‘normal’ working day; and they wished to allow fully autonomous, independent learning to develop, whilst at the same time providing supported learning in which parents may be involved.

4.7 Tracking the progress of the learners

Tracking individual learner progress, providing timely assessment of learning, personalising feedback, and learning support, both concisely and constructively, was one of the biggest challenges to schools during this time. While it was difficult for schools to find data to prove precisely what effect the arrangements were having during the lockdown periods themselves, some schools were able to describe a range of objective measures used to demonstrate that, for their pupils generally, learning gains had not been adversely affected. However, in many cases this conclusion was determined by the ability of schools to gain meaningful feedback. While many used quizzes and recorded the outcomes of the marking of learners’ work, to inform their judgements on both engagement and progress, it was also video and photographic evidence supplied from home, often sent by parents, that made a difference.

The speed, style, quality, medium used and timeliness of feedback was a theme the judges had encountered in the Awards in the years prior to 2020-2021, often in the context of:

  • shortening the feedback loop;

  • varying the style of feedback;

  • equipping learners for their next step;

  • driving more learner-led approaches;

  • facilitating/supporting flipped learning;

  • creating more independent, reflective learners;

  • improving self-assessment, peer-assessment, and evaluation;

  • helping to better engage parents with their children’s learning;

  • supporting teachers’ professional learning through audio/video; and

  • delivering safe, but wider collaboration by exposing learners to a larger audience for their work.

Many of the lessons learned by schools in past years in respect of facilitating and extending learning opportunities outside the classroom, at home, and beyond the school day came to the fore.

4.8 Maintaining social interaction and promoting wellbeing

The broader wellbeing agenda developed at pace during the pandemic period, in respect of pupils, parents and staff. All schools were sensitive to: workload issues/screentime challenges, family circumstances, the risk of isolation, anxiety caused by public examination arrangements being in a state of near crisis, family illness and bereavements, restrictions on seeing much-loved grandparents or visiting those in hospital or care situations, the cancellation of events like holidays and weddings, limits on attendance at funerals, the general state of unease and, in some cases, genuine fear at the prospect of severe illness or death caused by Covid-19. In its widest interpretation, pastoral care arrangements for all partners were tested to their limits and, for the most part, proved effective and resilient.

Parents and pupils commented that working remotely for long periods of time as an online individual at home (especially when participating in asynchronous learning activities) or using packs of hard copy resources provided by the school created a significant risk in terms of a lack of social interaction. Pupils and parents interviewed cited a lack of social interaction as the most negative experience of remote learning, and many acknowledged that they were struggling to deal with it. Parents and pupils reflected on how badly the children and young people missed their friends and their teachers, and that when their feedback was sought in surveys, and in pastoral conversations, parents and pupils asked schools to create some opportunities for social interaction, even if online. As a result, the schools reported putting in place as many opportunities as realistically possible to restore social, peer-peer interaction through:

  • time in synchronous lesson activities through quizzes or time spent in group work;

  • supported study in breakout rooms;

  • allowing the last few minutes of a live lesson to be informal chat time;

  • streamed video of social events and commendations;

  • reading bedtime stories to those in early years;

  • live pastoral meeting contexts/assemblies where friends could engage with each other and see what others had been doing;

  • regular telephone contact;

  • online tutor group/registration sessions;

  • the creation of “pastoral classrooms” for both synchronous and asynchronous contact;

  • the establishment of specialist pastoral teams for the duration of the lockdowns;

  • the continuation of online PHSE lessons, despite the time pressures and competing demands;

  • special regular online social activities such as ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’ and ‘Funday Fridays’;

  • the creation of a safe place for pupils to communicate pastoral needs;

  • strong links with outside agencies to support the school’s work;

  • the establishment (or continuation) of online counselling services;

  • one-to-one interactions with pupils via email, chat, video conferencing; and

  • when legislation permitted, by organising outdoor activities in which small groups of pupils could participate together physically.

4.9 The effect of remote learning on pupils who struggled to deal with being kept away from school

Some pupils, as reported also by their parents, found the dramatic change in routine created by lockdown hard to deal with, not limited to children on the autistic spectrum—although this group was certainly affected by being out of school. In addition, some key workers’ children and some vulnerable youngsters who were eligible to continue being educated on-site were kept away by parents who were anxious about exposing their families to the health risks of sending them to school. As a result, schools had to find ways to help all young people, including those who may have been struggling to stay engaged, even when in school, to participate in learning and feel supported when working remotely.

Many schools reported that they became aware of pupils struggling through survey feedback or contact initiated by parents. Reassuringly, all reacted quickly to put successful interventions in place. Other schools explained that they had anticipated and were proactive, putting in place preventative protocols and measures even before the start of lockdown. Some schools reported allowing children who were struggling at home to attend school at least once or twice a week even if they were not in the ‘child of key worker’ or ‘vulnerable’ categories. This reaction was particularly valued by parents who saw this flexibility as most helpful, as some became less and less capable of “surviving” in a wholly remote scenario. Whatever the definition, there could be little doubt the response of the school meant vulnerable young people had, in effect, been rescued from a potentially difficult situation.

5. Conclusion

This section of the paper summarises what the schools themselves described as the ‘Covid Keepers’. ‘Keepers’ are changes in educational practice resulting from creativity and innovation in embedding digital and online solutions during the Covid-19 crisis, which have now become part of day-to-day practice in many, although in not all, schools. Trends in policy and practice in schools are changing in at least six significant ways, many of which have been influenced by the enhancement of parental engagement.

5.1 Rapid adoption of online methods

Many schools recognise that their technology-enhanced policy and practice has advanced by years in only a few months, whether the teachers started from a relatively low base or by building on already-enhanced, blended classroom learning. Residual resistance to, or even fear of, employing digital technology as part of a pedagogic toolkit has gone. There is a wide recognition that teachers, learners, and parents are considerably more ‘tech savvy’ and confident, effective users of technology. Older pupils speak appreciatively about this step-change by their teachers. There is recognition amongst older pupils, teachers, and parents, that online practice reflects a modern, more realistic way of working, helping to develop higher-level, future, and soft skills which may well benefit employability. Even something as commonplace as a smartphone is seen, and used, as an effective tool for learning, not as a classroom distraction.

5.2 Resource accessibility

The wider availability and sharing of resources, teaching applications, information and documents online is planned as permanent. Sharing in the co-creation of resources, course planners and schemes amongst teachers is commonplace. Learners refer to resources online, as and when they need, to review teaching content. Reading materials, teaching texts and wider literature in digital form are always available, with accessibility tools supporting inclusion for those who need it most. Teachers publish homework tasks, tests, past papers, and examination assignments for ease of access. They create their own teaching animations and videos and match existing streamed videos to the curriculum. Parents, as well as learners, appreciate being able to review these resources, as often as they need. Some schools allocate staff development time to allow this well-received practice to continue, and some elements of teacher professional development are permanently online. The flexibility afforded through digital editing leads to more ready differentiation, through personalisation, to meet the needs of individual learners. Learners respond by creating videos, images, and animations to express their own understanding and share them with others.

5.3 Parent-school partnership

Engagement between parents and the school changed significantly to mutual benefit. Open access, necessitated by learners studying at home, shifted the insight by parents into the role of teachers, the challenges of engaging young people and appreciation of teachers’ hard work. Initially, access was provided to basic information about school actions and plans. More profoundly, however, online materials now lay out learning pathways explicitly. Parents, as well as learners, know what to expect from the online availability of weekly planners, schemes of work, learning diaries, homework tasks and school timetables. Learning intentions and expectations are explicit, clear, and shared constructively. Parents, while not wishing to become surrogate teachers, appreciate the resources, videos and occasional webinars which guide them in how to support young people’s learning appropriately. Frequent parental surveys into the effectiveness of online provision, including the voice of the learner on their own learning preferences, enable the school to fine-tune provision. Parent/teacher meetings are online, making much more efficient and effective use of time than open evenings. Parents can seek advice about progress, and log any pastoral concerns, while protocols about, for example, the timing of email responses from teachers, protect against unrealistic expectations.

5.4 Pedagogic enhancement

Planning for, and teaching, online - remotely - led teachers to think more deeply about aspects of pedagogy, and especially how to individualise teaching and learning support. Tracking learner progress individually, providing timely assessment of learning and personalising feedback and support for learning concisely and constructively led to more refined approaches, and not only while working at a distance. Lesson exchanges between teachers, learners and parents were more of a dialogue and less of a monologue, with learners able to ask questions individually, privately, and securely, through chat and text functions. In response, learners were engaged by the online marking of work by digital pen, by audio and even by video feedback, addressing their needs on an individual basis. Such approaches advantaged learners with special needs. Small group work in online break-out rooms shifted learning from cooperating to collaborating effectively on shared work. One teacher’s memorable metaphor for online dialogue in the first lockdown period was that of a ‘bicycle wheel with spokes radiating from the hub’; in the second lockdown, he said, discourse developed ‘into a learning web’. Teachers say that their refined understanding of pedagogy now influences their classroom practice permanently.

5.5 Learning engagement

Learners and parents interviewed were able to articulate what is gained from working online. Pupils spoke about the ability to focus on the topic in hand, without distraction from classmates, about the ease of responding individually and being less reticent to ask questions driven by their personal need. They talked about how they thrived from the opportunity to focus and to concentrate. They were alert to the fact that they were growing in confidence and in the ability to organise and regulate their own learning, were more independent in pacing themselves, choosing when best to work and when to take a break. This was true in primary as well as in post-primary schools. Learners spoke, and parents reflected this, not just about becoming more confident in interacting online for the purpose of learning – which they wisely distinguish from just using social media – but of their growth of the deeper confidence in speaking out, presenting, and developing their thinking with the whole class group and in breakout rooms. They recognised that this capability stood them in good stead for the future. With the return to classrooms, but with the continuation of absence of learners and teachers through illness and isolation, a form of hyflex learning (Beatty, 2019) has become a permanent feature in some cases. In these classes, learners not in school are able to log in, observe and participate in the lesson, either in real time (synchronously) or later (asynchronously). Short summaries of key points, posted online at the end of lessons aid consolidation and review for all learners.

5.6 Social engagement and wellbeing

Working at home heightened the alertness of all, especially in schools with relationships at the heart of their ethos, to the primacy of social interaction, personal wellbeing, and mental and physical health being missed by everyone. Explicit steps were made to build physical, outdoor activities into learning plans and opportunities for socialising with classmates through, for example, online quizzes, class assemblies, streamed video of social events and commemorations and for, early learners, bedtime story readings; such approaches were retained as features of learning in some schools.

6. Coda

This paper briefly reflects some of the, self-selective, sample of evidence from the NI Schools’ ICT Excellence Awards 2021-22, of the most effective practices seen, which led to schools reporting some permanent changes in their practices. It should be borne in mind that these thematic trends, which were noted by the judges, do not support any implication that they are universally evident in all NI schools.

Nevertheless, the ‘Keepers’ reported here will be of interest to all schools, and teacher professional learning providers more widely, to understand what may be achieved through the most effective leadership of learning, especially when parents are engaged positively. For government and other stakeholders, they reflect some evidence of an important social return on investments in technological infrastructure and resources in schools.


  1. Part of a school management information system called ‘SIMS’ currently in use in NI schools. Similar systems are used in other jurisdictions.

About the author

John Anderson, School of Education, Ulster University, Belfast, United Kingdom.

John Anderson

John is Visiting Professor of Education at Ulster University. He is the Independent Chair of the Northern Ireland Innovation Forum, which promotes and evaluates innovation in the use of digital technologies in schools. He supports the Education Information Solutions Programme and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and is non-executive director of the Controlled Schools Support Council. John retired after 35 years in the Education and Training Inspectorate, with experience in all sectors, and led in corporate development of the inspectorate. He was formerly a teacher, lecturer, a director of the UK Microelectronics Education Programme and Northern Ireland Education Technology Strategy Coordinator.

Email: [email protected]

Article information

Article type: Full paper, double-blind peer review.

Publication history: Received: 08 June 2023. Revised: 15 August 2023. Accepted: 16 August 2023. Online: 22 December 2023.

Cover image: Badly Disguised Bligh via flickr.


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