How I used tech to transform my nurture groups

Before Covid-19, technology didn’t play a big role in the nurture provision at Katherine McGreal’s school. But lockdown forced it to invest in laptops – and giving vulnerable students access to a device has boosted their engagement and wellbeing
1st January 2021, 12:05am
How I Used Tech To Transform My Nurture Groups
Katherine McGreal


How I used tech to transform my nurture groups

Digital technology is not something you would usually associate with a feeling of "nurture" - many people see computers as impersonal and detached from the warmth of human emotion.

However, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the nurture department at The Gryphon School in Sherborne, Dorset has been using technology to ensure the best possible outcomes for some of its most disadvantaged and vulnerable students, who might otherwise have been left behind.

Tes caught up with Katherine McGreal, the school's head of nurture, to find out how they've done it.

Tes: To what extent was technology seen as a support tool for children in nurture classrooms before the pandemic?

Katherine McGreal: Well, before Covid provoked so much change, technology in nurture classrooms was present but subtle. There was a perception that it was
for "emergencies" only. Looking back now, the emphasis of nurture remained on traditional expectations around what makes a student "literate". Reading, handwriting and spelling formed the building blocks of our specialist curriculum.

What technology did your classes have access to back then?

Our available hardware consisted of 13 iPad Minis, which had been purchased when the department was first established. Later, wireless keyboards were bought, to enable students to use the iPads for word processing. Online phonics software enhanced the literacy programme, but this was only accessible in an IT suite, meaning additional timetabling restrictions. 

Eventually, two PCs were installed in each nurture classroom. However, with 13 students in a class, demand for these was high - especially when you consider that most of these students relied on IT as part of their access arrangement for GCSE.

I think it is fair to say that our department's approach to technology was a bare-bones one, and that the sudden demand for remote learning at the start of the first lockdown presented a huge challenge for us.

So, when the switch to remote learning came, what was the initial transition like for the students you work with?

In the early days of lockdown, there was a certain sense of euphoria: school was out, children were legitimately allowed to stay at home and the Easter holidays were
rapidly approaching. 

However, the reality of trying to engage 72 low prior attainers in learning, from a distance, for a long period of time and with limited technology, quickly made the experience less agreeable.

This was a stressful time for all pupils, but for the nurture pupils, many of whom have special educational needs and disabilities, the experience was overwhelming at times.

Personally, I found the closure of my school and the rushed goodbyes emotionally gruelling. The threat of the unknown and the realisation that I wouldn't have "eyes-on" contact with vulnerable students was very worrying to me.

What steps did you take at that point totry to make things easier?

Initially, the focus had to be on simply making contact with our students and their families. For the most part, students did engage with us and parents were supportive. 

However, with many parents attempting to work from home, or alternatively deployed as key workers, the prospect of homeschooling was obviously stressful. 

To make things even more complicated, we realised that students were accessing their work on a range of devices, including laptops, mobile phones and PCs. Many of them were also sharing computer access with their siblings.

Additionally, in the rural area we are based in, wi-fi connections are often unstable. It wasn't long before the emails requesting IT support started to flood in. With little capacity to provide devices for students to use at home, our only option was to invite those who were struggling to join the on-site provision we were offering to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.

That approach must have presented challenges of its own. What kind of problems did you encounter?

With limited space and real anxiety regarding social distancing and soaring infection rates, this was by no means a perfect solution.

Looking back, given the unprecedented circumstances that we were faced with, there was little else we could have done to make lockdown learning more accessible at the time. However, it quickly became clear that we would need to reinvent our IT provision, including the status and level of importance it was given in the classroom. And so began the nurture department's tech transformation. 

What did that transformation look like, and what type of technology did you invest in?

It became clear that the first step in improving the department's IT provision was to ensure we had access to the hardware our students needed. While iPads served a purpose in the past, what we needed now was a simple and fairly immediate means for students to access the internet and word processing.

With advice from our IT experts, we purchased a set of Chromebooks - fairly basic laptop-style computers that would enable students to access Microsoft Office online from the specialist nurture classroom and, if necessary, from home.

What did it mean to your students to have individual access to technology?

On the day that the Chromebooks arrived at the school, there was enormous excitement. Students were genuinely amazed that the laptops were for their benefit. When they were delivered to the classroom, it was like Christmas morning. 

I will never forget placing the device in front of one of my most vulnerable and volatile 14-year-old boys - he turned to me with eyes round like saucers and told me, "Miss, I feel so professional!" Previously, this young man was underperforming by a long stretch - academically capable and bilingual, he has a number of SEND needs, meaning that he produces little work and can become exceptionally frustrated.

Now, since we introduced the capacity for him to have constant access to IT, he has not needed to use his exit card once and, in fact, has become the IT expert in the classroom.

Another student, who arrived in Year 7 with a reading age below 6 and was entirely dependent on one-to-one support from a teaching assistant, is now ready and willing to work independently.

Having access to a laptop has given him a much-needed, almost magical confidence boost - the Chromebook, in conjunction with software such as Immersive Reader,
has given him the opportunity to express himself and demonstrate his understanding, without the risk of damaging his reputation or social standing.

How have the laptops changed the department as a whole?

The benefits of having access to laptops became apparent extremely quickly. Visiting teachers were commenting on the impressive learning atmosphere in the classroom - 13 students working in silence, absorbed in their writing on 13 laptops, is very hard to ignore. 

Soon word was out and teachers, parents and senior leadership wanted to know more. We have now doubled the number of computers available, meaning that two nurture groups can be online simultaneously. 

We are also able to use reading, spelling and phonics software more fluidly within the nurture classroom - gone are the days of having to book alternative computer rooms for hour-long discrete spelling lessons. 

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of the changes you have made?

Although we still have much to learn, I'm confident that the improvements we have made in our delivery of IT have put us in a better position than we were in six months ago. If we are forced to close our school in the future, I know that learning can continue and that the strong relationships fostered between students and teachers can be sustained, because we have more effective means of communication. 

Most importantly, I have a set of young people who feel valued and invested in. While the world may be a little different at the moment, the people they rely on for consistency and stability are still accessible - learning and life continues. 

Many would argue that using IT in a classroom is a novelty at first, that will quickly become old for students. But for those in our nurture classrooms - children who find schoolwork hard and frequently demoralising - the experience of success that IT can bring them will never lose its shine. 

Katherine McGreal is head of nurture at The Gryphon School in Sherborne, Dorset

This article originally appeared in the 1 January 2021 issue under the headline "How I used tech to improve my nurture groups"

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