The internet can provide a virtual answer for those who can't, or won't, attend school, as George Cole reports
Can't learn, won't learn. There are many reasons why children may be out of school for long periods of time, from the disaffected pupil to the school phobic, and from the pregnant teenager to the chronically ill student (such as those who suffer from ME or chronic fatigue syndrome). But whatever the reason, long-term absence from school means a child's education is disrupted at best and severely damaged at worst.
The traditional solutions, such as learning support units for the disruptive or disaffected or home tuition, have their place, but now another method is being used by some local authorities - the virtual school.
The Nisai Virtual Academy (NVA) has been developed by Nisai Education in partnership with Warwickshire Local Education Authority (LEA) and is currently used by around 150 children in 10 LEAs. The NVA is designed for children aged 10 and older, including those in post-16 education.
To use the NVA, a child needs a home PC and internet access. There are two elements to the NVA. The first is the virtual classroom, whereby the teacher and groups of students can interact in real time using a combination of email, chat, messaging and audio tools. The groups can see the same teaching resources at the same time, such as a diagram or web page. These lessons can be recorded. There are also self-paced assignments that the students can tackle in their own time and at a pace that suits them. These are also useful for students who may find it difficult to interact with others, even if there is no physical presence in the room.
David Teece, who runs Warwickshire's Education for Children out of School (Ecos) division, says around 50 students in his LEA are using the virtual academy system. "We looked at doing something like this five years ago, because felt that home tuition was becoming outdated in terms of giving out-of-school children a good education," he says.
Before any students are enrolled on to the NVA, they are assessed against several criteria. First, there is an analysis of their learning needs and capabilities. Second, they are judged against a skills checklist to see that they have the necessary ICT skills. If a skills shortage is identified, then they may be given training to turn them into e-confident students. The third factor is whether they have the motivation and attitude for virtual learning to be effective.
In Warwickshire a third element has been added - face-to-face contact, where teachers involved in the NVA periodically meet to discuss issues with each other.
"We want our NVA teachers to be part of a team and that means making sure they're properly trained and supported," says David Treece. "Home tutoring, even on a virtual system, can be a difficult. The pupils are also visited at home through a mixture of pastoral and educational sessions."
The NVA makes it easy to see how both student and teachers are progressing.
"I can simply log on to the system and see who is doing what and when," explains David. "This way, you get a good idea of how students are progressing."
Most of the NVA students in Warwickshire are at key stages 3 and 4, and David says they have found that it's more effective to mix groups of students rather than sticking rigidly to the same age ranges. The groups also include students from other LEAs that are also using the NVA.
David says there has been a full range of student reaction, from those who think it's great and have benefited from the experience, to others who have seen it as an easy option. "Sitting in your living room with a PC is a nice thing to do if you don't like people or don't fit in," he says.
For this reason, David points out that it's important that students on the NVA are not allowed to become remote, and that the aim should be to try and get them back into school and experience social inclusion.
Among those who have benefited from the NVA are sufferers of autism or Asperger's Syndrome. These children often find it difficult to be in social situations. "One parent said that the NVA meant her autistic child could learn with others, 'without the stresses of proximity'," notes David.
"Pregnant students or those with small children also like the NVA's flexibility, as live sessions take place in the morning and afternoon, and they can also watch the recordings."
He adds that such is the impact of the NVA, that Warwickshire LEA is developing a curriculum for virtual learning, and plans to cater for a wider age range of students.
* Online learning is not for every student - you need to assess their learning needs, ICT capability and attitude before putting them into a virtual classroom situation.
* Equipment need not be an issue. It is likely that many students will not have a home PC or internet connection. Warwickshire LEA, for example, provides students on the NVA with a laptop computer.
* Effective staff training and support is important, as it's easy for teachers working in virtual classrooms to become isolated.
* If possible, try to give students in a virtual classroom face-to-face contact with a teacher and tutor periodically.
* Regular assessment and monitoring is important. Students need to be checked to ensure they are covering sufficient ground and making progress.
An online research project, Not School, like the Nisai Virtual Academy, aims to re-engage secondary school students back into learning. It is managed by Ultralab, the educational technology research centre based at Anglia Polytechnic University. Partners in the project include Apple Computer, the Department for Education and Skills, the Science Museum and Toucan Computing. More than 20 local education authorities are also involved in the project. The first phase involved 100 students, who were known as "researchers" and given a range of ICT resources, including an Apple computer, internet connection and a range of multimedia hardware and software. The results are very positive. In the first phase of the project, 98 per cent of the young researchers were found to be re-engaged in learning and the same number went on to gain a formal accreditation. Since then, 54 per cent of Not School's researchers have gone on to gain five or more GCSEs. And whereas 87 per cent of young offenders have been excluded from school, only 2 per cent of Not School's researchers have had any convictions.