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Ullapool High School pupil shares reality behind virtual learning

By Iona M.J. MacDonald

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As Ullapool, Gairloch, Kinlochbervie and Farr parent councils' campaign demanding a better deal for rural pupils gathers pace, IONA MACDONALD hears one student’s experience of virtual learning, touted by many as a solution to a lack of resources.

Poppy Lewis-Ing.
Poppy Lewis-Ing.

An Ullapool High School senior pupil has exposed the reality behind Virtual Academy courses.

Poppy Lewis-Ing (17) is a sixth year pupil at Ullapool High School and is planning psychology at university after receiving several unconditional offers this year. However, she has faced barriers simply because of where she lives.

This month saw the publication of an open letter to head of Highland Council leader Raymond Bremner and education secretary Jenny Gilruth, titled Save Our Rural Schools.

Four parent councils representing high schools in Ullapool, Gairloch, Farr and Kinlochbervie, have gathered over 850 signatures calling on politicians to do something about what they call the dire state of rural Highland education.

Cllr Bremner responded to concerns about a limited choice of subject and staff being stretched beyond their capabilities by citing the “success” of online learning provision as a solution.

Ms Gilruth, who had not responded to the open letter at the time of writing said: “Councils are able to extend subject choice through school-college partnerships and digital platforms who provide a range of online provision.”

However, Poppy’s experience of high school virtual learning courses delivered by the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) shows they are not the panacea they are made out to be.

Poppy, who studied Higher sociology and Higher psychology through virtual learning courses in S5, said: “In sociology, we had three weeks without any tutor, and by the time we had a tutor again it was too late to catch up.

"We had three different teachers for psychology over the year, none of whom knew what parts of the course we had learnt, so it was our responsibility to tell them what we had been taught – there didn’t seem to be any communication.

“I’m lucky to be an independent learner, and my older brother is studying psychology at university which has helped with the coursework. But I still need feedback from teachers and to have conversations about topics I don’t understand – you can’t get that through email or Google Meet. It’s hard to communicate with virtual learning teachers.”

Virtual learning is often floated as a solution to limited resources. The reality can be different. Picture: AdobeStock
Virtual learning is often floated as a solution to limited resources. The reality can be different. Picture: AdobeStock


As there was no room allocated for her to take the course, Poppy had to do her online classes from the school’s concourse, with many pupils loudly passing through during her classes.

She explained how some schools didn't provide textbooks for the course, despite being told that they would be provided.

Poppy said: “I had to put so much more effort into my virtual learning courses than my face-to-face courses.

"I thought: ‘Am I spending too much time on this? Is it going to affect my my other subjects?’ I spent so much time to teaching myself the basics that it affected my grades in other classes – I had to drop the course.

“In psychology, most people did the assignment (worth 30 per cent of the grade) in pairs to lower the workload. But because I was the only Ullapool pupil on the course, I had to do it alone, which took lots of extra effort and planning.

“I was getting migraines from the stress, I was losing confidence; we hadn’t been taught about major deadlines like the assignment yet. It was too much.

"Virtual classes might work for some, but for the majority they don't– virtual learning cannot replace face-to-face learning.

"It feels like we're being told we don't deserve the opportunities that other people have." - Poppy Lewis-Ing, S6 pupil at Ullapool High School.

Talking about her choice of subjects for sixth year, Poppy said: “I was going to do Virtual Modern Studies, but at the last minute it was removed as a course for our area, even though it’s online.

"I wanted to get another higher under my belt for my uni applications, but it wasn’t possible. I felt very stuck.

“There are a lot of people at school who are having a nightmare with subjects. It's not just me who’s feeling it, a lot of my friends are in the same position.

"If you come from a school without a lot of academic opportunities, you’re already at a disadvantage. Someone who doesn’t get into university, just because they had to do subjects they weren’t good at – I don’t think that’s fair at all.

“My year group had a class of just over 30, but in S4 it was down just 15. People are fed up.

“I’ve had countless conversations with peers: ‘School can’t offer what I want to do so there’s no point staying’. It de-motivates us to think we don’t need an education.”

Another issue in rural schools is the merging of classes, as Poppy explains: “I’ve definitely noticed the impact of budget cuts during my time at the high school.

"Some classes are now merged together with National 5 and Higher pupils in one class, for subjects like history and geography.

“It’s a lot for the teachers too... I think it is an extra level of stress for the them. You only get 50 minutes in one class, and you’re having to teach two exam year groups, but you can’t divert all your attention onto one class.

"They’ve got to plan two lessons in one. A lot of people are finding that the National 5s get left behind. There’s no time to give one-to-one support, you just don’t get that anymore.

“Its not the teachers' fault – they can’t help having to teach two classes at the same time. I think a lot of people will be forced to get private tutors, because it’s just not doable.

“The government needs to take action. It feels like we’re being told we don’t deserve the opportunities that other people have.”

Seoras Burnett, chair of Ullapool High School parent council.
Seoras Burnett, chair of Ullapool High School parent council.

Chair of Ullapool High School parent council, and Save Our Rural Schools organiser, Seoras Burnett, said: “The way online learning is delivered doesn’t allow for meaningful interaction between teachers and pupils and between pupils, this results in a significantly poorer outcome for pupils those in face-to-face learning.

“It’s universally felt that online learning should never be a substitute for face-to-face delivery of the core curriculum although it’s generally accepted that some form of virtual learning can complement the subject choice as long as the delivery is clear and consistent.”

UHI was contacted for comment.

Read or sign the Save Our Rural Schools open letter here.

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