Is an Online School Right for My Child?

As a result of Covid-19 and the need to isolate, parents suddenly found themselves taking on the role of teacher, and having to adapt to the technology and online teaching methods of their children’s schools.

Schools too had to adapt rapidly to the demands of online education, eased in the transition by the efforts of the UAE’s education authorities to ensure that the delivery of this was measurable. Distance Learning Evaluations ensured schools could improve their delivery with realistic and effective benchmarks to aim for.

Online learning is not new, however.  In the UAE NEASC accredited iCademy Middle East (the only UAE-based online provider, recognised by the KHDA) has offered a US curriculum online learning option (along with a face-to-face one) since 2007. This largely online solution has served students are unable to attend school full-time, due to family commitments, or as a result of the student’s own external commitment to a sports or performing arts. An online option offers considerable flexibility compared with the usual physical school demands.

With the switch to online learning in 2020, many UAE families realised for the first time that they could also choose an online school delivering the UK as well as a US one, and at a fraction of the cost that they were paying to their schools in the UAE.  However, it is one thing for parents and students to manage an online education in an emergency situation, quite another to make the decision to go the online route full-time and on a permanent basis. spoke to three leading providers of online education, all based in the UK, but tailoring their teaching to students in the UAE, and asked them to address the most common questions that parents considering online education full time would want to consider.

King’s InterHigh (KI) has been offering online learning since 2021, when InterHigh, established in 2005, was merged with the King’s College schools, a group which has over 50 years of experience. King’s InterHigh teaches the UK National Curriculum and IB Diploma for children from Year 3 to 13.

Now part of Inspired Education, with over 3,000 students across the globe, more than 10,000 successful alumni, and a Gulf Standard Time timetable option for international students, King’s InterHigh has been designed from the ground up to support children of all lifestyles, backgrounds, and learning styles. During the course of this interview, we spoke to Tahoora Khalil, Head of King’s InterHigh Middle East.

Whilst King’s InterHigh teaches children from Year 3, to Year 13, Sophia High School (SHS) is one of the few schools to offering online education for children from as young as Year 1 (5+) through to Year 9 (14+).

Based in the United Kingdom, Sophia High School is part of Sophia Technologies Ltd, a UK based EdTech company founded in 2018. Sophia offers overseas parents the opportunity to access high quality online education for their children as part of a global learning community, with over half of its students based in the UK, who are joined by a diverse number of students from all over the world. Our contact at Sophia High School was Vanessa Temple, its Director of Education, EYFS & New Projects.

The third online school we spoke to was Minerva’s Virtual Academy (MVA), founded in 2020, the online school grew out of Minerva Tutors, a company established in 2014 by Hugh Viney, an ex-tutor himself, whose founding vision was to help ‘professionalise’ the tutoring industry.

Mr Viney wanted to offer parents an alternative approach to the norm – complementing the standard methodology of “exams-based” tuition with a broader educational approach that would benefit students for the long run, and would not be solely focused on helping students pass exams under the more traditional ‘tutoring’ approach. Minerva’s Virtual Academy is an extension to tutoring to provide a full time online education for students aged 12-18 years of age offering IGCSE in Years 9,10 and 11 (age is not a boundary to entry to the year groups) and will offer A Levels from September 2022. spoke to Lawrence Tubb, Headmaster at Minerva Virtual Academy.

What do parents and students need to consider when making a move to online schooling?

Tahoora Khalil (KI): Many of King’s InterHigh students find that learning away from the traditional classroom environment is a major advantage of online schooling. Students need access to a computer with a stable internet connection, and parents will need to create a positive and productive learning environment at home where students can take most of their lessons.

Parents can tailor this space to their child’s learning style and needs. While staying focused at home may be a new skill for some students, creating a great learning environment helps. With older students, this may mean setting up a desk in a home office or bedroom where there are no noises or distractions. Younger students or those with additional needs may benefit from a setup in a living area where parents can check in with them often.  Some students, particularly those in younger years, may also need additional parental guidance to stay on track with their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Vanessa Temple (SHS): Parents have many reasons to switch their child from ‘live’ school to online, and often the choice is to meet an essential need of the family, such as families who move and travel for the work of one or more parent, or to meet a particular academic need of a child. When considering this move, there are some big questions to be answered, again as a family, to make sure that this is the right fit for your needs.  Parents regularly ask if they need to be present for their child’s online classes, as this has a big impact on what the child achieves but also limits what the parent can do in their day. Of course, the answer is that our youngest children in EY do need someone to join them online, but as the child gets older this need is reduced. 

Lawrence Tubb  (MVA): Parents need to consider the different structure of the school day and whether online learning is going to suit the nature and learning style of their child. It is not for some. but for those who do not like the rigid structure and long hours of directed study that you find in highly regulated schools then the online schooling system could open up a new path to enrich their learning experience. Parents also need to consider the level of support they’re able to provide to their child while studying online – it works best when the online school and parents are engaged and united in ambition for and support of pupils.

Establishing a routine and workspace for learning is essential. As there is no physical teacher present to direct and guide, parents need to ensure that their child is ready on time for their online lessons, has everything that they need to participate in the lesson on-hand in their workspace, and is ready to interact with the rest of the online group. The amount of self-directed learning can be greater with online learning, and so children should be ready to continue their activities after their screen time ends, and work to deadlines set. This can be quite a challenge for any child until they develop the skills and mindset to meet these expectations, but these are also the skills needed to transition successfully to university. By developing them now, this establishes a pathway for success later.

How does the school support new and current students in terms of monitoring performance, encouraging students to engage fully in the new environment and working practices?

Tahoora Khalil (KI): After a comprehensive induction, we welcome new students to their classes. Alongside academic lessons with expert teachers, our tutors hold regular wellbeing sessions. With a maximum class size of 20 for both form groups and our seminar-style Explore lessons, King’s InterHigh creates a tight-knit environment where all students can feel comfortable opening up and participating.  King’s InterHigh’s team keeps in regular contact with parents—both during the onboarding process and throughout each child’s time at the school.

Inspired AI, an online learning tool for students, combines artificial intelligence with the latest research in learning science and neuroscience. The platform identifies each student’s unique strengths, gaps in knowledge and misconceptions. Students can log in and complete work that has been suggested for them by the advanced recommendation engine or work that has been set by teachers. It allows students to take control of their own learning and for teachers to get real-time data on progress, so they can quickly identify which students need support or additional challenge.

Educational performance is thoroughly monitored with the help of our digital pupil platform. Alongside important formative assessments, teachers conduct regular low-stakes summative assessments that track progress without subjecting students to exam stress. The results are then logged on the pupil platform, giving students, parents, and teachers an easy overview of how each class is going.

Vanessa Temple (SHS): Monitoring performance, assessments and record keeping, are the same for our online teachers as they would be in the classroom. Sophia students have online, digital workbooks and work spaces that are used for sharing work with the group and their teacher, and these are checked regularly and of course appropriate feedback given to help each child move forward. Parents have access to these work spaces and can monitor what their child is doing at any time.

Connecting with the teacher is also much easier for our online parents, as they have a scheduled meeting each week to discuss progress and moving forward for each individual child. Any concerns can be addressed straight away, and more importantly the sharing of each child’s successes.

Lawrence Tubb  (MVA): Each of our students sits a baseline test which allows us to put each pupil in the most appropriate class group, and there is a comprehensive on-boarding process for all new families. Our Class sizes are small ensuring that our teachers are able to meaningfully engage with each student in the class. Each student is also allocated a mentor who will meet with them every two weeks to talk about the fortnight that has passed and to give goals and targets for the weeks ahead. The Mentor then writes a comprehensive report which is emailed to parents and stored on our secure database for easy tracking and reference.

Assignments are marked by the subject teacher and these marks are available for the students and their parents to see in our learning platform. If we feel that a student needs to be encouraged to engage this will be discussed in the mentor appointment or with a member of the teaching staff.

How does the school personalise the curriculum to meet each student’s needs?

Tahoora Khalil (KI): King’s InterHigh offers highly flexible timetabling and scheduling options. Alongside our original GMT timetable, we offer a GST timetable to suit students in time zones across the Middle East, North Africa, and neighbouring regions. We also record every single live lesson so students can keep up with any classes they’ve missed. This is perfect for those with commitments outside of the classroom, from acting to sports to travel. Students get the best of both worlds with this flexible learning, no longer forced to choose between academic life and outside passions.

Across the year groups, we provide a wide variety of subjects to choose from. Currently, students can select from a range of 18 GCSEs and IGCSEs as well as 21 A Levels. From  September 2022, we’re launching a brand new curriculum option—the world’s first fully online pathway for the IB Diploma Programme, for students aged 16 to 19. Giving students the freedom to choose subjects that interest them is just one of the many ways we keep learners of all types engaged in their education.

Vanessa Temple (SHS): The lessons are planned and prepared to keep the children engaged, and individual extension tasks and challenges set to support learning at an individual pace for each child. The misconception that parents need to ‘join in’ with the class really should be gone by now, if the online school is committed to working effectively with families. Yes, parents need to monitor the work their child is doing, as they would do with homework, and ensure that deadlines that have been communicated by the teacher are met, but these are the expectations of all schools. Your online school should have a Charter that sets out the responsibilities of the school, teacher, parent and child so that this is clear from the start.

Lawrence Tubb  (MVA): When a student joins the Academy we spend a lot of time trying to get to know the personality and learning style of each of our pupils. We talk this through during the admissions process and also ask them to complete a comprehensive pupil profile. This gives families the opportunity to tell us more about their child – their circumstances, interests and hobbies, preferred subjects, what has worked well for them in school before and things that have caused them difficulty. All teachers are aware of this information, and mentors use it to provide personalised support, and where appropriate families will also be put in touch with our SENDCO.

How does the school address students’ social and emotional needs?

Tahoora Khalil (KI): Wellbeing support at King’s InterHigh is highly effective, both in the classroom and across the wider school. Our form tutors hold weekly wellbeing sessions, supporting students through educational progress roadblocks and wider life concerns. Learners also have the opportunity to take part in smaller focus groups where they can get help and guidance for more personalised issues. We also take a wider holistic approach to our students’ progress, keeping a close eye on attendance, classroom engagement, and similar indicators. In weekly meetings, our staff can identify any students who may need additional learning guidance, meaningful intervention, or even more of an educational challenge, supporting each student where it has the most impact.

It’s a misconception that children can’t socialise at online school—our rich school life involves clubs, extra-curricular activities, common rooms, assemblies, exercise classes and support sessions, and a safe online chat platform. However, parents still need to make sure their child is eating well, spending time outdoors, and so on.

Vanessa Temple (SHS): The point that all parents raise is the challenge to interact socially with friends, and how difficult this can be online. Your online school should put social challenges and considerations at the forefront when structuring their programme, as we are all social creatures and nobody works effectively alone. Small, regular groups of children who can bond with their teacher and each other should be the priority. By setting a clear schedule and expecting all students to attend, we have found that the routine of the class and the excitement at seeing friends is extremely important.

Many families connect outside the classroom for activities, both virtual and in person (if location allows) and Sophia students also use the Metaverse to continue their social and learning activities. The important thing to remember is that your school should facilitate connections of the strongest quality and to ensure that children are confident within the group and excited to learn with their friends. 

Lawrence Tubb  (MVA): Mentoring represents the cornerstone of the Academy’s philosophy and the main reason why our pupils are able to develop and flourish into confident young members of society. Every pupil who joins Minerva’s Virtual Academy is assigned a personal mentor, who they meet with regularly online on a one-on-one basis, and who oversees all aspects of the pupil’s academic progress, pastoral well-being and involvement in school life. They are highly trained and experienced with 1000s of hours of 1-2-1 mentorship under their belt. Our mentors are there to make sure every child stays inspired and on track.  We encourage our students to make friends with their classmates and we provide a contact list if they choose to reach out to others.

Also standard at the Academy, we offer weekly sessions to help pupils understand themselves, develop resilience, practice mindfulness, learn about and discuss issues that affect them, and equip them with the mental resilience to ultimately make good life choices. Pupils also strengthen bonds by participating in our after school clubs, during Enrichment Weeks and in group projects.

What support is there for students who may be either behind – or ahead – of the curriculum on joining, or who may need on-going additional support in terms of SEN or G&T?

Tahoora Khalil (KI): King’s InterHigh has a comprehensive programme of support options for students across the school, no matter what their needs may be. Existing needs are all identified during our school induction process, but we also monitor for any new requirements that may develop while a student is learning with us. Our SEN Lead Practitioner ensures that the appropriate adaptive teaching strategies are in place to fully support any students with additional needs, reviewing progress regularly.

We also welcome students learning at a high academic level with a need for more advanced teaching. With an adaptable timetable, we can place students in higher-level classes for subjects they’re gifted in without transitioning them a full year ahead of their peers—though we do also accommodate gifted students who have chosen to skip a year.  For international students with additional language needs, we offer top-up English classes led by a highly experienced English Language teacher.

Vanessa Temple (SHS): Children who are talented in some areas are placed in older, more appropriate levels for these subjects, whilst still staying in their home groups for other lessons. A Year 2 child who is gifted in mathematics may join the Y6 lessons to ensure that they are working at a pace to challenge and extend their skills rather than be bored with children the same age, but less skilled in this subject. This flexibility allows for an extremely personalised curriculum and timetable to be developed to best meet every child’s needs. 

Some children are exceptionally bright, but struggle in a regular classroom setting, and so online education is a wonderful solution for these children. The distractions, noise, and other bodies being around – which has been a challenge for them in the past – are all removed and the focus is for a limited amount of screen time only. We find that children with this kind of challenge have really blossomed online and their confidence to participate and excel has been wonderful to see. 

Lawrence Tubb  (MVA): Our students are able to access all of the course content via our learning platform so if they have missed some schooling we can help devise a catch up programme for them. For those who would like to progress at a quicker pace we use our Mentors to give extension work and develop areas of personal interest to keep engagement and interest high. Breadth, and giving each pupil a strong awareness of their place in the world as global citizens and power as effectors of change are real priorities for us, and we do this through our World Changers, Assemblies and Global Award programmes.

For those who need extra support for either SEN or G&T we can discuss individual needs on a case by case basis and if necessary enlist the help of tutors from our sister company Minerva Tutors.  For those for whom it is necessary, we have a parallel stream of courses – MVA Priority courses – with a lighter workload, enabling them still to develop their skills and prepare for formal assessment, but with fewer assignments to complete. Where required, pupils with identified extra needs can benefit from ‘additional to and different from’ measures to help them maximise their education.

How does your school involve parents in their students’ education?

Tahoora Khalil (KI): Not only is parental involvement important at King’s InterHigh, it’s also a major advantage that only online schooling can bring. Like most traditional schools, we host parent consultations for every year group and issue regular reports to keep parents informed of their child’s progress. Our online parent portal gives families instant access to student information and updates. Parents and guardians can track grades, learn about extra-curricular opportunities and trips, and more with the touch of a button. Our teachers communicate often, but we also list all contact details on the parent platform so families can get in touch themselves whenever they’d like.

King’s InterHigh offers regular meetings with members of the educational leadership team and heads of subjects. Parents are free to join these sessions for answers to specific questions about their child’s life and learning. Our proactive Parent Ambassador is always happy to connect with new parents and guide them through the process of settling in.

Vanessa Temple (SHS): Connecting with the teacher is much easier for our online parents, as they have a scheduled meeting each week to discuss progress and moving forward for each individual child. Any concerns can be addressed straight away, and more importantly the sharing of each child’s successes. Parents need to monitor the work their child is doing, as they would do with homework and ensure that deadlines that have been communicated by the teacher are met, but these are the expectations of all schools. Your online school should have a Charter that sets out the responsibilities of the school, teacher, parent and child so that this is clear from the start.

Lawrence Tubb  (MVS): We feel that the students who achieve most success have parents who are actively involved in their child’s learning journey. We do not need them to sit with their children but we do require them to engage with the mentor reports and provide practical home support where required to keep their child on track to achieve their potential. We also feel that it is important for them to talk about their child’s school day, ask about their learning and praise them to boost confidence. If we feel that a student might benefit from extra tuition we will also reach out to discuss this with the parents.

What are the essential qualities that you feel would need to be present in a student joining an online school – particularly for I/GCSE, A Level or IBDP?

Tahoora Khalil (KI): As with any school, students who show an enthusiasm for learning and a commitment to making educational progress (in line with their own unique academic targets) will have the best experience at an online school. We like our students to be willing to take on some of the support and guidance we offer, as our wellbeing and academic teams are dedicated to making sure every learner gets the most out of their journey with us.

IGCSEs and A Levels may be different to the curriculums children studied in their previous schools, but our suite of online resources can help students get to grips with a new way of learning. The new online IB Diploma Programme is an academically rigorous pathway with additional components designed to develop well-rounded young people. As such, our IB learners need to be driven and motivated learners with a genuine interest in academics, physical activity, creativity, and community work.

While our students don’t need to be digital experts, they should be prepared to learn using cutting-edge technologies. In addition to everyday classroom activities like discussion and hands-on work, we also use a wide variety of digital tools to bolster understanding. Students may go on virtual field trips using VR, conduct experiments in virtual labs, play learning games, and watch interactive video content.

Vanessa Temple (SHS): Parents choose a school for their child based on personal criteria and there are now viable options for learning online. Not the hashed-together lengthy days watching the screen of pandemic learning, which I think we can all agree were dark days for education, but schools that have a vision of learning for the future and the means to bring this vision to life. 

Access to quality, qualified, experienced teachers is essential. If we consider the teacher, the global teacher shortage is having an impact on all schools, but internationally in particular. The quality and experience of the teacher for online schools cannot be compromised, and many experienced teachers are now eager to work online as they can have a healthier work/life balance without having to leave their family or home country. 

Lawrence Tubb  (MVA): Pupils join online school for a range of reasons, and with a wide variety of skills and strengths. This leads to a vibrant and diverse community and we are frequently impressed by the empathy, good humour and gregariousness of our pupils! There is, of course, no single path to success but in order to achieve their potential, pupils need to develop the ability to be self-motivated, responsible and ambitious in their work, and to know their goals and commit to taking consistent small steps to achieve them.


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