Hospital and Outreach Education wins Alternative Provision Innovation Fund bid, providing AV1 telepresence robots to support children with long-term illness.

The initiative, headed by Hospital and Outreach Education in partnership with No Isolation, Great Ormond Street Hospital School, Manchester Hospital School, Leicester Hospital School and others, utilises the £522,142 grant to provide continued education to children absent from school due to long-term illness.

Alternative Provision Innovation Fund

Announced in early 2018, the Alternative Provision Innovation Fund is a Department of Education
initiative, comprising of £4 million. The aim of the fund is to develop effective practice for improving outcomes for children who require alternative provision. The fund will run from 2018 until 2020. Providers were invited to bid for the money, outlining their projects, and the Department of Education selected the initiatives that they felt would most effectively deepen the evidence base on how to improve outcomes for children in alternative provision. Fund participants will meet together regularly, to share their emerging findings andeffective practice, thus helping to create a network of innovation in this space.

The project, in partnership with No Isolation, aims to support the education of children suffering from long-term physical and mental illness through the introduction of AV1 robots, which would enable the children to virtually attend school, socialise with classmates and remain connected to their home schools and communities. In addition to improving the overall levels of education, the collaboration also aims to minimise the impact that school absence can have on a child’s friendships, mental wellbeing and future prospects. Using AV1 will ensure that the child remains an active part of their school community, even if they are being treated outside of their home county, easing the transition of the pupil back into full-time education wherever possible.

The ten partner schools and hospitals benefitting from the project will be:

1. Gloucestershire Hospital Education Service
2. Cherry Tree Learning Centre
3. Great Ormond Street Hospital/ University College Hospital
4. Berkshire Adolescent Unit
5. Shepwell Short Stay School
6. Manchester Hospital Schools
7. Leicester Hospital School
8. The Pilgrim PRU (Cambridgeshire)
9. Hospital and Outreach Education
10. Bristol Hospital Education Services

Project outline

The project’s aim is to provide 90 children in key stages 1-5, with No Isolation’s AV1 telepresence robot, in order to allow them to continue ‘attending’ school throughout their treatment. The children, affected by a variety of conditions ranging from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME) and cancer, to mental health illnesses, including anxiety and eating disorders, obtain access to the project because they are already
reliant on receiving educational support through alternative provision either in a general hospital, a medical pupil referral unit, mental health in-patient unit or at home.

Those participating in the project will use AV1 to virtually attend school for as long as they are unwell, with assessments and evaluations taking place throughout this time. If, after recovery, the student no longer requires an AV1, the telepresence robot will be reallocated, which would potentially increase the reach of the project from the initial 90 children to as many as 360. Each evaluation point aims to prove
that, due to access to an AV1, the child’s attendance increases while isolation reduces, their progress is in line with their peers and they receive a broader curriculum, based on increased access to subjects not typically available through alternative provision. Similarly, the bi-annual evaluations will look into the effects of the AV1 on emotional wellbeing and eventual transition back into full-time education. The data
collected from the evaluations may include:

● Improvement in attendance
● Progress and attainment data
● Improvement in engagement
● How easy it is to return to school
● How easy it is to remain in school following the return
● Improvements in wellbeing and lessening of anxiety, feeling of isolation, and loneliness

The need for a better method of supporting a sick child to remain connected to their home school comes up time and time again in student feedback, but there is little pre-existing research, only practitioners’ personal experience. Cath Kitchen, the project lead, has been involved with alternative provision for over 18 years, serving as the chair of the National Association for Hospital and Home Teaching for over ten
years. During this time, the evaluations conducted by Hospital and Outreach Education consistently showed that pupils ranked lowest when asked how well they stayed in touch with their school and friends. This finding is further backed up by 2018 research by University College London, which discovered that digital technology played a key role for pupils in medical alternative provision by allowing them to stay connected. Cath Kitchen, National Leader of Education, comments: ‘ Having been involved with alternative provision for nearly two decades, I know firsthand the impact that absence from school can have on a child’seducation and mental wellbeing. I hope that the findings from this project will pave the way to providing equal access to education for students with medical and mental health difficulties, enabling them to fulfil
their potential. I hope that every child, already suffering from the impact of a long-term condition, will not have to suffer further by feeling lonely and socially isolated from their school and their friends. I feel that No Isolation’s AV1s, supported by the fund and the partner organisations, and backed by evidence based research, will illustrate how technology can be used positively to support this vulnerable group of learners and enhance their educational experiences during their period of illness.’

Each of the partner organisations will decide how to distribute the robots, but it is envisaged that children with a wide variety of medical and mental health conditions will have the opportunity to trial them at their home schools. Once allocated, No Isolation will set up the robots, providing 24/7 technical support to the pupil, their family and/or carers, as well as the relevant training for each of the participating schools.

Norwegian No Isolation, a company dedicated to reducing involuntary solitude, is the only producer of the AV1 telepresence robot, which means that they alone can provide adequate training and support.

Project benefits and potential

The allocation of No Isolation’s AV1 telepresence robots to students will reduce their feelings of loneliness and social isolation, as well as allow them to continue with their education whilst they are unwell. Students can choose for their robot to appear as active and alert when they are willing to participate in the lesson, or alternatively, indicate to teachers that they would like to observe the class passively. Theimproved attendance, potentially improved progress and increased connectedness to their home school, will raise awareness of the potential for technology to enhance the educational experience for children with chronic conditions. Once the project is complete, the findings should provide a sound evidence base to support the use of telepresence solutions in education, as well as providing data for evidencing improved outcomes through the use of AV1s. The project is being externally evaluated by Ecorys with the explicit goal of disseminating best practised within the wider education sector.

As well as increasing participation in lessons so keeping up with their peers, the students may have access to increased hours of education and a broader range of subjects. The added benefit of using AV1 is that the local authority is not funding one-to-one individual tuition, but making the most of the student’s own school’s expertise, which is not only more beneficial for the student, but also more cost-effective. For reference, a day of education through an AV1 costs less than £10.

Speaking on No Isolation’s involvement with the project, Karen Dolva, CEO and Co-Founder of No Isolation, comments: ‘ Our overarching goal is to end involuntary isolation, making sure that no one, irrelevant of age, gender, ability or socio-economic status, ever feels alone. To be part of this project is incredibly important to us - seeing our first product used in a government scheme in order to improve
education and provide chances to children and young adults, cannot be expressed in words. We have no doubt that the two-year project will prove to be a success. The perfect result for us would be to raise awareness of the benefits that warm technology can bring, with more schools using AV1 and with every child who needs one, having access to one without delay. Our end goal is to end all isolation and
reducing isolation while improving the education of young people is the perfect place to start’.