After the bubble bursts

How can kids stay in school when Covid sends them home?

children have failed to return to full-time education.

Last week it was revealed that, according to the Centre for Social Justice, more than 93,000 have failed to return to full-time education after schools reopened, calling them 'the lost children of lockdown’. A few days later, the BBC reported that school absences quadrupled in June, with more than 375,000 pupils out of school thanks to the policy of sending home entire bubbles every time there is a positive Covid case. Meanwhile, the Guardian took note of the County Councils Network's warning that a £1.3bn deficit in the nation’s special educational needs (SEN) budget was likely to significantly impede post-pandemic recovery. Any one of these stories is enough to make it clear that there is still a major threat to the education of our children.

No child should have their education disrupted any further. If we are to overcome this threat to the education sector – and SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) pupils in particular – policies, resources and technology need to be in alignment.

The Government’s announcement of a policy shift from automatic bubble isolation to daily testing and individual isolation in time for the new school year in September represents a significant shift. With bubbles sometimes extending to as many as 200 children, an effective daily testing programme could prevent as many as 199 pupils isolating unnecessarily.

The move from entire year groups out of school to single pupils creates a different kind of problem, however. Throughout the pandemic, we have treated learning as an either/or binary division. You’re either learning remotely in the online space, or together in the physical classroom. In this scenario, remote learning platforms such as MS Teams can be effective tools for teaching the class as a whole, but they’re simply not designed for use in situations when just one or two students are out of the classroom. Those children are often left feeling like afterthoughts, left out of class activities and unengaged in their learning. In all likelihood, Covid will be with us for a long time to come, perhaps forever. There is a possibility that enforced isolation from school for positive cases will become a long-term policy. We must find ways of living with this.

Whilst the myriad of technological advances means that there are lots of options relating to online learning environments, AV1 provides a physical presence that breaches the online world with the physical representation of the child who might otherwise be missing from the classroom.

– Sarah Dove, Director and Strategic Education Consultant, Phoenix Education Consultancy
Three girls holding AV1 outside hugging and laughing

Any tech solution aiming to keep isolating students engaged in learning from September onwards needs to bridge the divide between physical and online, otherwise you split the class in two. How can we keep someone in school when they can’t physically be there? How do we keep them on track with the rest of the class? Not just in terms of the curriculum – how can we preserve their social connections to their classmates? Most parents and teachers would agree that one of the most valuable things about our school system is that it gives children the opportunity to work and play alongside one another, to learn how to get along, disagree, make up, and have fun. Alongside the physical threat of Covid, a climate of anxiety and instability over the last 18 months has put children’s mental health in grave risk. What young people need now more than ever is continuity and a sense of connection.

There is also additional pressure on teachers and school leaders to juggle the education of those in and out of school – without the right tools to do so. You can send home maths worksheets, but what do they do to fulfil wellbeing, personal development or enrichment objectives? It is perhaps unsurprising that the number of children requiring extra support has exploded, as the CCN reported. Academic learning is just one layer of the onion – the kind of child development that schools are engaged in is a complex, multifaceted and holistic process that even the best BBC Bitesize quiz can’t sustain alone.

Fortunately, we don’t have to invent a new tech solution – it already exists. ‘Warm technology’ is the tried and tested answer to preventing continuing disruption to education. This is the term coined to describe the tools that enable people to thrive in that middle space between present and remote. It’s not about replacing human contact, or making social communication artificial or superficial through AI (artificial intelligence). Instead, warm technology exists to facilitate human connection, and by design it cultivates our sense of belonging. It answers the question: ‘When you can’t physically be there, what’s the best next thing?'

Telepresence devices such as AV1 merge the physical and virtual in a way that remote-learning platforms like Teams cannot replicate. There are currently more than 500 kids in the UK using AV1 telepresence devices to maintain a physical presence in the classroom when they can’t be there themselves. More than 30 local authorities have successfully employed the technology to help those affected by long-term illnesses and other conditions that keep them out of school stay connected to the classroom.

“For many children COVID-19 meant disrupted education, however, for children with long-term and in some cases life-limiting health conditions a disrupted education is something that featured heavily in their lives before COVID-19, and will thereafter. Whilst the myriad of technological advances means that there are lots of options relating to online learning environments, the AV1 provides a physical presence that breaches the online world with the physical representation of the child who might otherwise be missing from the classroom. Many of the children we have worked with have personalised their AV1 so that it becomes a symbol of them in the classroom, whilst they might be too unwell to physical attend, the nature of AV1 means that their friends, their peers and their teachers, are reminded that there is a child not physical there, but one who still is part of the school community"

– Sarah Dove, Director and Strategic Education Consultant, Phoenix Education Consultancy

It’s therefore important to remember that children missing school is not a new phenomenon. Our 2015 estimate suggested at least 72,000 children out of school even before the pandemic – and the updated figure we’re currently in the process of finalising looks to be far, far in excess of that. In the five years since it was first launched, AV1 has been proven to improve educational outcomes and support mental health for the children that use it. And because it stops teachers having to teach two groups in parallel and enables them to preserve the integrity of the class, it takes pressure off schools too.

When the bubbles burst in September, there is no reason why technology such as AV1 should not be employed to plug the gaps. The solution is there to be used; it’s simply a case of planning and scale. If we do this now, there’ll likely be far less disruption to the education of a cohort of children who have already suffered enough, and far fewer alarming headlines come September.

It is important as we move forward, that we do not abandon all we have learned during the pandemic, particularly in the use of technology. We need to think more creatively about the inclusion of pupils with medical needs, where use of AV1 to enable a child to access their home school class, peers and curriculum becomes the norm, and not the exception. We have a real opportunity to make a difference to this vulnerable group of children - let us work collaboratively to ensure that this is not lost.

– Cath Kitchen, CEO of The Skylark Partnership Trust, APIF (Alternative Provision Innovation Fund) Project Lead, Chair of the National Association for Hospital Education

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.

– Benjamin Franklin