Support for setting up a digital education platform

With the Department for Education recently announcing funded set-up support for digital education platforms, Amy Cook from The Key takes a look at why schools and trusts are adopting these platforms and explains the ins and outs  of the new funding scheme.  

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve and schools transition to a ‘new normal’, remote teaching and learning will likely remain a part of school life – to some degree – for a little while yet.

In recognising this, the DfE is now offering funded support for schools to get set up on one of two free-to-use digital education platforms: G Suite for Education or Office 365 Education.

Many schools are already successfully using such platforms, but for those that don’t have one set up, it’s worth exploring what the benefits could be for your school and getting to grips with what’s on offer from the DfE.

So what is a digital education platform?

Given the circumstances, it’s as close to a real classroom as you can get. It’s a place where your pupils’ learning experience at home can continue as close to normal as possible. The platforms are purpose-built for remote learning in a way that a school website isn’t. For instance, teachers can communicate directly with pupils, set individualised tasks, let pupils work together, and easily give personalised feedback. There’s no statutory requirement to have a platform or sign up to the DfE scheme, but there are plenty of benefits if you do.

Why make the move?

Only you can decide on the approach to learning that’s right for your school community. The point is that, whatever your ambition and hopes for the rest of the year, these platforms can make it possible.

There are many reasons why schools are adopting them. Firstly, you can keep the special connection between your teachers and pupils.
Many pupils want to see their teachers and have that sense of normality. Digital education platforms allow pupils to video-call their teachers for remote lessons, and have supervised group calls to catch up and check in with each other socially. It’s easier for teachers to keep that personal touch when they give pupils feedback, too.

You don’t need to compromise on pupils’ learning. Whether you want to drip-feed tasks to pupils over the coming weeks, or are keen for pupils to log in for a full day of lessons and submit work, a digital education platform has you covered.

Teachers can also easily give pupils personalised feedback. This means that pupils can keep learning new skills and concepts from home, rather than focus only on consolidating knowledge.

The platforms allow you to stimulate pupils with a wide range of activities. Digital education platforms allow teachers to provide a package of resources for their pupils, ranging from videos
 to interactive whiteboard drawings, all in one place.     

They give pupils a place to submit creative tasks of all levels of complexity, too. This might be a photo of their latest artwork, or a video of a Tudor house they’ve built in Minecraft. Pupils can also use shared documents and interactive whiteboards to work together on group projects. When it comes to classwork, the only limits are your teachers’ and pupils’ imaginations.

The platforms are also safe and secure as you have full control over the features pupils can access. For example, if you don’t want pupils video-calling each other unsupervised, you can customise these tools to keep your pupils safe. If you’re worried about family members going rogue in the background on a call, you can set house rules, just as you have in place in school anyway, to set expectations about behaviour, dress and so on. You’ll also have an audit trail of chat logs and recordings too, just in case there’s ever a problem.

You’ll still need to adopt sensible safeguarding precautions when using the platform, as you would in school. For more support, take a look at The Key’s free article on how to build safeguarding into your remote learning and the DfE’s guidance.

The digital platforms are also easy to set up and use. With someone with a bit of tech know-how on hand, you can set up either of these platforms to meet your needs in a matter of hours, and get staff and families using them effectively within days.

What’s on offer from the DfE?

Schools and trusts can now apply for DfE-funded support to get set up on G Suite for Education or Office 365 Education. These are the two most-used platforms. They are free to use, but eligible schools/trusts can receive funded support from a Google or Microsoft-accredited partner to get set up and trained on their chosen platform. Schools/trusts will be assigned a partner once they register for this support.

Eligible primaries will receive £1,500 and secondaries £2,000. Funding for academies in trusts is capped at £1,000 per school, with an upper cap of £10,000 per trust. The DfE will release funds to the school/trust once completion of the work has been confirmed. The school/trust will then pay the partner directly. The DfE will be publishing detailed guidance on the payment process imminently.

Who’s eligible?

This funded support is available to state-funded primary, secondary, special schools and pupil referral units in England that don’t currently have a digital education platform; or are already using Office 365 or G Suite, but are not yet set up to assign work and communicate with pupils.

Independent schools are not eligible for funding, but can still apply for support if they cover the costs themselves.

The eligibility criteria above also applies to trusts. There are benefits to all schools within a trust being on the same platform under one tenancy, such as instant communication between staff across schools. In this instance, trust leaders should apply directly for schools within their trust. Similarly, academy leaders should speak to their central team about applying on their behalf. If there’s already a mix of usage between G Suite and Office 365 across a trust, then trust leaders have two options. You can instruct schools that need support to apply individually, or you can apply for support yourself and speak to a partner about the benefits of consolidating your schools across two separate tenancies, one for G Suite and one for Office 365.

It’s worth noting that the platforms will remain free (apart from premium Google Meet), but the funded support on offer is for the initial set up. After that, the platform is yours to manage and any additional support you request from accredited partners will need to be paid for by your school/trust. Also, the DfE scheme only covers schools looking to get set up on G Suite for Education or Office 365 Education, so don’t apply if you want to use a different platform.  

How do I apply?
You can apply directly via The Key’s digital education platform hub. It links to the forms you’ll need to use, and provides feature comparisons and best-practice case studies to help you choose the right platform for your school/trust.