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Alistair Brownlow was recently appointed the new Head of the UK's first online school, ASW2: A School Without Walls.

Alistair Brownlow was recently appointed the new Head of the UK's first online school, ASW2: A School Without Walls ( www.asw2.net). The school is operated and owned by Southbank International, an independent school in London, and provides private online tuition by the hour (£350 for 10 hours) or an entire AS- or A-level for £1,250.

Who is taking your courses?

Our students come from a range of backgrounds and take our courses for different reasons. One girl last year was set on being a doctor, but her school wasn't happy with her doing a chemistry A-level because her GCSE grade wasn't up to standard. We let her take chemistry alongside the other A-levels she was doing at school. Another pupil was sponsored by a kite-surfing company to travel around the world competing, so he did his A-levels online. Schools can't always tailor A-levels to individual students, and we offer an alternative.

How do students enrol?

Admissions are organised by much the same process as any other independent school. We try to involve the parents as much as possible. Last year, I had as much dialogue with the one of the pupils' fathers as I did with the pupil himself. The students have to demonstrate a willingness to work hard and a sense of realism about the challenge involved in distance learning.

Have you deliberately modelled the school on other distance-learning institutions like the Open University?

No. We asked ourselves how we could replicate the buzz and excitement you get in any good lesson, but online. The teaching software was developed specifically for us. The materials themselves have all been developed specially by teachers: each A-level course consists of 200 online lessons, taking the form of text written by teachers, web-links to relevant external sites vetted by the teachers, keywords and homework exercises.

How do distance-learning students fulfil the practical elements of some A-levels, and where can they sit their exams?

Our most popular courses thus far are biology and chemistry, both of which have mandatory practical elements. Our UK-based students can do their lab work at Southbank International School. As yet, none of our overseas students have taken those courses. If they did, we'd have to come to an arrangement with a partner school in their area. If students are UK-based they also sit their exams at Southbank. If they are overseas, they can sit them at any British Council office.

How does an online school deal with the non-academic aspects of school life, such as discipline and pastoral care?

Our students learn self-discipline. In terms of pastoral care, we're going to maintain the low class sizes that make independent schools attractive. We provide careers guidance and academic counselling, but we don't pretend we can reproduce a school's pastoral environment entirely.

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