A 2019 report, called Invisible Children, highlighted that the number of children affected by the problem is currently unknown, but estimates that tens of thousands of children in England alone could have been absent from school due to conditions such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME), or mental health illnesses.
For mainstream teachers juggling busy workloads, supporting children who are not able to be in the classroom is a challenge which requires additional resources. The work of educators who teach in alternative provision is vital to maintain learning opportunities for children who are ill.
The type of setting varies, but the overall aim remains the same: via a hospital school, medical pupil referral unit (PRU), out-of-school tuition (OOST), or home tuition, these educators provide temporary educational support to help minimise the impact of being absent when children return to school.
I spoke to two educators who work with children who have medical needs and asked them how they innovate with technology to provide learning opportunities.
AV1 robots in Northamptonshire
Cath Kitchen, Head Teacher of the Hospital and Outreach Education team in Northamptonshire, oversees provision for children and young people aged 4 to 18 who cannot attend mainstream school due to a diagnosed complex medical and/ or mental health conditions. Cath explained to me that, while delivering education is important, her team also consider the social aspects of learning. Ill children often lose touch with their peers, and learning in a new environment without the presence of familiar classmates can be difficult.
Cath’s team have been using a telepresence solution called AV1 to help children remain part of their school community, even when they are too ill to attend. The AV1 robot goes into a child’s usual mainstream classroom, and becomes the eyes, ears, and voice of the child. Video and audio are streamed from the robot via an end-to-end encrypted connection which the child watches from home on a tablet. The app provided allows the child to be interactive and raise their hand to answer questions or discuss ideas as part of a small group.
Once set up, the AV1 robot becomes embedded into all kinds of activities within a school. “One child even went on a school trip to the supermarket via an AV1 robot which was placed in the shopping trolley and pushed around,” Cath revealed. Every case is different, and each young person requires an individualised approach. “We tweak the system to fit the child, not vice versa,” Cath told me, and added that the support of the child’s mainstream school was vital.
90 AV1 robots are currently being evaluated in classrooms around the UK as part of a Department for Education-funded project which aims to deepen the evidence base on how to improve outcomes for children in alternative provision. Teachers have access to an online resource bank to cover everything from privacy and data protection to presentations for staff and parents. It is hoped that the project will provide best practice guidance about using telepresence solutions in education that can be disseminated amongst schools.
Innovation in Oxfordshire
James Shyrane is Assistant Headteacher at Oxfordshire Hospital School and teaches computing as part of the Outreach Teaching Service, working to help local schools support pupils with medical needs. In any one day he could be delivering a computer science lesson involving Python in a pupil’s home, or working with a small group of children to code a micro:bit in a public library.
The Hospital School won the TES Schools Award 2019 for innovative use of technology to influence outcomes, and a project called Robots in schools was a key part of this success. James explained that the hospital school is using a fleet of 11 telepresence robots to live-stream classes to children who are unable to be in school due to their medical condition.
As well as AV1 robots, the Hospital School is also trialling some Double 2 robots. These are self-driving, two-wheeled video-conferencing robots which mean that children can walk virtually around a school with their friends, as well as being present in lessons via a secure, streamed video feed. James said: “The project has made a big difference to our pupils, enabling them to stay connected to their home school’s academic programme and, just as importantly, to maintain social links to their peers.”
Looking to the future
Formal education is not the only thing which children miss out on when they are too ill to attend school. They also lose access to all the enrichment activities which schools offer, including after-school clubs. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is currently working with the team at Southampton Children’s Hospital to set up a Code Club in their communal play space. An initial training session for the Play Specialist team has already been delivered, and this exciting new project is now in pilot phase.
By combining inclusive approaches and innovative technology, educators have the chance to support children with medical needs. There is work to be done on assessing strengths and challenges of different telepresence solutions, as well as pulling together a richer and more accurate dataset of how many children are unable to regularly attend school due to illness. Provision for children with medical needs varies substantially depending on where families live, and so sharing best practice nationally is also important. Finally, it’s crucial to make sure that teachers in mainstream schools are aware of the possibilities and supported to work with alternative provision educators to deliver inclusive learning opportunities.
Ultimately, the use of technology offers exciting opportunities to help ill children continue to learn and achieve. It also gives children social connections which are vital to their emotional health and interpersonal skills and will enable smoother transitions when children are ready to return to school.