16th February 2021

Paper: Tactical and strategic digital learning decisions in our schools

On Tuesday 26th January 2021 the Education Policy Institute hosted a webinar which brought together education leaders from across the sector to share their insights on how to deliver effective remote learning.

The session, which included an address from the Secretary of State for Education, reflected on how these experiences and insights from school leaders could shape a future digital and remote learning strategy.

The event forms part of a series of discussions including, Moving forward: digital learning lessons for leadership and Addressing the digital divide in education.


The Prime Minister declared on Monday 4th January that all schools in England would close for an initial period of six weeks, with possible extensions if the virus continued to spread rapidly throughout the country and hospitals remained close to capacity. This required all schools to recommence operating remotely for most pupils (apart from vulnerable pupils and children of key workers).

This disruption follows an Autumn term in which many schools experienced partial closures, with many pupils needing to learn remotely. Indeed, government data published on 1st December showed that school attendance across the country stood at 83.5%, with rates of 88% at primary and 78% at secondary. There was significant variation in pupil attendance between local authorities, with attendance levels in secondary schools as low as 61% in Knowsley, for example, as found in a recent EPI report. [1] [2]

The social mobility impacts of school closures are widely documented. Not only do pupils continue to have varied access to remote learning, unlikely to improve given existing funding settlements only covering 1/3 of schools’ COVID-related expenses, but EPI research has shown that disadvantaged groups and those with low prior attainment are more likely to miss school, meaning these groups may be more dependent on remote provision. EPI analysis has shown that pupils in special schools are least likely to attend school (86% in Scotland, 82% in Northern Ireland, 73% in England); disadvantaged pupils are less likely to attend school than their more affluent peers (8% gap in Scotland, not available for other countries); and older pupils are less likely to attend (Y11 attendance rates are 5-6% below secondary average in Wales and Scotland).

The Department for Education has taken several positive steps to improve the quality of remote provision, including on device and internet access as well as funding centralised resources.

Given the expectations of schools to deliver quality remote provision, and the importance of responding to these expectations both tactically and strategically, we hoped that this event, focused on those themes, would be a useful contribution.

The discussion can be divided into six themes: 

  • Appreciating context – schools serve hugely varied communities and certain pupil groups and year groups will need different remote learning offers to support their needs.
  • Robust policymaking – capacity and resilience needs to be built into the school system so it can better withstand crises.
  • Access to technology – access to technology should be the bedrock for any future digital strategy.
  • Delivery of lessons – teachers should not rely solely on live lessons and should focus on what would be most effective for their pupils and their subject area.
  • Engagement – of pupils and staff – engaging pupils remotely is much harder than in the classroom. Assessment, feedback and engaging their parents and carers can help motivate pupils.
  • Wellbeing – good mental health is a crucial foundation to effective remote learning – facilitating opportunities for pupils to speak with their peers and engage with their socio-emotional experiences is hugely important.

We are grateful to all speakers and participants for their contributions.

A full copy of the summary paper Turning the corner: Tactical and strategic digital learning decisions in our schools, can be found here

[1] https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/attendance-in-education-and-early-years-settings-during-the-coronavirus-covid-19-outbreak/2020-week-48

[2] https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/school-attendance-since-full-reopening/