Along with the rise in home education over the past few years, something else has grown exponentially- the prevalence of online schools. Most often used for secondary age students to prepare and take them through their GCSEs, online schools are frequently misunderstood and parents can be stressed trying to make a decision on which one is right for their child.
This article will clear up exactly what online schools are, (it’s not as simple as it seems), and compare a few of the most well-known online schools available to UK and international students.
What Is An Online School?
Online schools are simply companies that choose to deliver lessons and educational materials to clients (“students”). In that sense they are a bit like a private school, only most content is delivered digitally; they may send textbooks but this is getting less popular in favour of online materials.
This may be for the purpose of the student completing an exam; online schools that focus on GCSEs are widely used by both long-term home educators and those who have recently deregistered. However, parents may also choose to use an online school for primary age and pre-GCSE secondary age. There are also A-levels and BTech courses available for students who wish to pursue post-16 education.
Why Do Parents Use Online Schools?
Parents may have chosen to home educate their children from birth, and followed a relaxed approach such as unschooling. They may be very happy with their method while at the same time wanting their child to access qualifications as stepping stones to higher education or employment.
Children who have had a hard time in school- perhaps because of bullying or perhaps they are neurodiverse or have special needs- can find comfort in doing online lessons with a group of peers, as opposed to the in-person school environment. The best online schools offer pastoral care and mentoring so this can be a really good option for children who are not thriving in school.
Rather than sourcing all the material for a child’s education themselves, parents often prefer to buy a service where they know all the materials and tuition are included.
The best online schools record their lessons and offer the videos to students to access at their convenience. This means if a student misses a live lesson, they can catch up when it suits them. Some exceptional online schools also offer students material before the lesson so that they come prepared and ready to get the most out of the session.
Online schools are less expensive than private education, and the best ones give similar results. It’s important, though, to bear in mind that some schools are cheaper for a reason- look at what each school actually offers your child, and their reviews, before deciding. The next part of this article will help you with that!
Comparing 3 Popular Online Schools
I am going to compare academic provision; extracurricular provision; pastoral care; online reviews and fees of 3 popular online schools that are accessible for UK families as well as international students. These are Learn Direct, Minerva’s Virtual Academy and King’s Interhigh (formerly Interhigh).
Learn Direct is an online course provider best known for its training courses for adults. It does have GCSE options; the thinking behind this seems to be primarily for adults who wish to ‘go back’ and get GCSE qualifications that they didn’t get in school but teens can also take these course.
Academically, Learn Direct offer many GCSEs such as Maths, Business Studies and Social Studies. These can be bought without the exam fee, or as a combined option. The material is usually given to the student, who is expected to teach themselves the content (similar to Open Uni TMAs for anyone familiar with that). This might suit a student who is very confident and self motivated, but obviously won’t work for students who would like live lessons or a community feel. There is an option to upgrade to include some live lessons.
Learn Direct do not offer any extracurricular provision as clients specifically purchase the courses they wish to pursue, so any extras like sports, drama, debate clubs etc that students might want, need to be found and paid for elsewhere.
There is no pastoral care as such offered at Learn Direct, probably because it is mainly catering to adults, so that would need to be arranged elsewhere for children/teens.
Online reviews are mixed- and I’m going to be frankly it does seem like some of the positive ones may be contrived. Several reviews talk about customer service staff being helpful with regards to information about the different course, but there seem to be several unhappy customers having experiences of no support from tutors which is a shame.
Fees– I looked the cost of the Maths GCSE with exam entry and this came to £889 for the one GCSE. Honestly this seems extortionate as there aren’t even live lessons. I have heard of packages being put together, and the History GCSE for example is cheaper at £674, but obviously if 9 separate GCSEs are chosen then paying full price will be expensive.
Minerva’s Virtual Academy Review
Minerva’s Virtual Academy is one of the newer and cutting-edge online schools and grew from the well-respected tutoring company Minerva Tutoring. Rather than being a huge corporation, MVA is one of the few online schools that has a proper community feel, with a committed headteacher (who previously taught at the prestigious Wycombe Abbey), two deputy headteachers and a thoughtful ‘four pillars of learning’ framework (live lessons, a bespoke virtual learning platform, 1:1 mentoring and community including school trips).
When it comes to academics, MVA offers online school from year 7 right through to A Level and BTECH. They offer a wide range of GCSE subjects for students and each subject involves a one-hour live lesson in a small, interactive group with specialist subject teacher. MVA also has offers students online material via a videos, audio, quizzes and challenges so that they can get to know the subject comfortably and in a game-like way, before doing the live lesson. The founder of MVA attended Stowe for his education and has clearly brought the high standards with him to his online school.
Extracurricular provision is also carefully considered at MVA- children have several clubs to choose from such as debate club, film production, entrepreneurship, art and photography- and they can even suggest ideas for new clubs to try!
The pastoral care at MVA is something I was particularly impressed with- I’ve heard parents using other online schools say that they felt a bit isolated and left to their own devices. Each student at Minerva’s Virtual Academy gets their own mentor who will regularly meet with them to help with things like personal growth and wellbeing, goal setting and the like, to ensure that students feel genuinely cared for while studying.
Online reviews are still building up for MVA as they are a new school, but their rating on Facebook is 5 stars.
When it comes to fees, something that I like about MVA is that there are no hidden costs- what you see is what you get, unlike other online schools who slap on registration or enrolment fees, fees to sit exams or who charge extra for non-academic classes. The fee per year at MVA is currently £6950; there are flexible payment plans to break this cost down so it is manageable termly or monthly. MVA encourage discovery calls where parents can find out exactly what it would be like for their child to study with them; you can book that for free on their discovery call page.
King’s Interhigh (Formerly ‘Interhigh’) Review
King’s Interhigh, formerly known as Interhigh, offers primary and secondary education for students who want to access the British curriculum online. I have written about Interhigh before as they previously reported home educating families to Local Authorities without their permission (and alienated an entire community of UK home educators); I have been told that they have since changed their policy and don’t do this any more.
When it comes to academics, Kings Interhigh provides primary students with a core curriculum that can be added to if parents wish to enrol their child in additional subjects such as drama or music. This is delivered through online lessons in classrooms of up to 20 children. For secondary students they have lower secondary (age 11-14) plus GCSE years, as well as a sixth form for A Levels or IB Diploma. These lessons are delivered live online, and recorded so students can catch up.
There are extracurricular clubs that children can join such as chess, technology and debate clubs- as well as access to events like summer camps and school trips at schools that KI is affiliated with. There are also provisions such as a student council for children to get involved with, and assemblies/ common rooms with guest talks.
I am not aware of any 1:1 pastoral care provided at Kings Interhigh; there is a social media app for children who attend the online school, but mentoring for example does not seem to be offered.
The online reviews are mixed with an average of 3.2 on Google – one parent said ‘the online classes suit her well and she no longer feels pressured by staff”, another said “terrible- staff ignore support requests and there is a lot of chat, leaving work rushed.”
The fees for King’s Interhigh vary depending on the child’s lesson package, but for an annual contract for the 9 GCSEs core package there is a fee of £5300, plus a £500 ‘academic fee deposit’ and a £100 registration fee, so £5900 (this doesn’t include school trips etc). Additional subjects are £625 per year.
I hope this comparison of three online schools is helpful- choosing one for your children is a big decision so do book discovery calls with each of them to get all the information you need to make that leap- and I wish you and your child all the best in their new education adventure!