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The new Oak National Academy has, on the whole, been a success. Launched in haste by a team of volunteers with under two weeks’ preparation, it has been broadly welcomed by learners, teachers, and parents. Since the 20th April, over four million lessons have been accessed.

But Oak is not perfect, and nor does it claim to be. In his blog, Oak’s Director of Curriculum, David Thomas, shared how he wished he’d been able to launch an online classroom that was as inclusive as possible and included a specialist curriculum. So it is fantastic that just 14 days later we are launching our first week of specialist content.

There is much to be celebrated; our team of volunteer teachers and leaders have achieved a massive amount whilst in many cases, simultaneously running their own schools. However, like David we want to avoid hubris and talk about what’s wrong with our specialist offer.

Rapid improvements for accessibility

It is not a coincidence that Oak’s logo is an acorn. We are starting small and growing quickly. In just three weeks, much has changed. A comprehensive and honest accessibility audit has led to rapid improvements in the site, including nearly all lessons being subtitled and lessons for the lower age groups available in British Sign Language. Most significant though is the addition of over 30 lessons specifically made for learners who normally receive their education in specialist settings.

We’re starting with four subject areas - language and communication, numeracy, independent living, and creative arts. We also have a therapeutic offer, which this week comprises three speech and language sessions. These will be expanded in future weeks to include physical therapy and occupational therapy.

We have consulted as much as we can in the time available. The subject areas are all delivered by different specialist schools and as a result, represent the diversity of our sector. We have also been advised by experts including Margaret Mulholland, Anne Heavey, Susan Douglas and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. We have spoken to parents (including SNJ) and we look forward to hearing feedback from learners over the coming week.

Yet despite this wealth of expertise volunteering to help, deciding what and how to teach in the specialist curriculum has been a massive challenge, and not one that we are sure we have got completely right, yet.

1. We can’t be everything to everyone

The non-mainstream sector, and the learners it supports, is amazingly diverse. We had to be realistic about what we could achieve. Put simply, we knew that we could not do everything for everyone. We had to make some tough decisions and work within our volunteers’ capacity.

We decided to target our support at the area where we felt there was the biggest gap in online lessons and resources - SLD and MLD schools. But this means that other areas are not covered. Increasing this coverage, and increasing the inclusiveness of the Oak primary and secondary content, is an area we know that we need to continue developing.

2. We have struggled to find a common language

We wanted our lessons to be suitable for a range of abilities, and we needed to be able to explain which age, development or phase, lessons were aimed at. There is no common language for this across the sector; each school arranges it the way that suits their community best. In the end we settled on three starting points for our lessons: Early Development, Building Understanding and Applying Learning.

As we produced the first lessons, it also became clear that our Communication and Language lessons would also benefit from age-related options – so each lesson has a “primary” or “secondary” element (even though we know that this isn’t always a relevant distinction in our sector). We have done our best to create a coherent offer but we have worked at pace and recognise there are compromises and we need to continue to refine our approach.

3. We can’t replicate what specialist schools do best

Specialist schools pride themselves on their in-depth knowledge of their learners and their families. Their provision is based around individuals and relationships. No online, off-the-shelf support is ever going to be able to do that.

Oak is not trying to replace any school; we don’t have relationships with children, and it would make no sense to pretend we are more than what we are. We are not in children’s communities and we don’t know their situations. Our hope is that through these lessons, we can make life a little bit easier for teachers and free up time for them to continue their support for their pupils.

4. We aren’t going to change the world

As David explained when Oak launched three weeks ago, we’ve come to expect that any new thing, especially any new thing that involves technology, believes it’s going to change the world. Every tech unicorn has a mission statement about revolutionising things. Oak won’t change the world. Especially not when it’s been built in a matter of weeks. It’s not supposed to revolutionise teaching. We just want to make life a little bit easier during one of the most difficult periods in our lifetimes. If we can do that, then that’s a big win.

This blog first appeared in Special Needs Jungle on May 4, 2020.