Innovative online school awarded grant to tackle attainment gap for Looked After Children

Innovative online school awarded grant to tackle attainment gap for Looked After Children

Acorn Digital Learning (ADL) – an innovative real-time online teaching provision for pupils requiring an alternative learning environment, and part of Outcomes First Group – has been awarded funding from Innovate UK to develop an online school to tackle the attainment gap between Looked After Children (LAC) and their mainstream counterparts. Against the backdrop of a 44% rise in children entering the care system[1] and an estimated 46% widening of the attainment gap since the onset of COVID-19[2], ADL aims to provide a bespoke learning environment delivered by teachers skilled in ‘attachment issues’ to help transform educational outcomes for Looked After Children.

Working closely with local authorities, virtual head teachers (VHTs) and schools nationwide, ADL aims to ‘level the playing field’ for Looked After Children by removing the barriers to learning that prevent them from achieving in line with their mainstream counterparts – just 37% of LAC reached the expected standard in English and Maths in 2019, compared with 65% of non-looked after children, according to DfE data.

Looked After Children regularly experience interrupted schooling – such as during transition into care, and between care placements – and can find a physical school environment initially too overwhelming. By developing an online school which travels with pupils, supporting their individual needs throughout transition phases and helping them to reintegrate back into school or post-16 provision, ADL will provide students the stability and continuity they need in order to thrive, build confidence and interact with peers and teachers in a relaxed, safe and secure environment.

Many Looked After Children have experienced traumatic events throughout their lives, leading to attachment issues that prevent them from accessing learning in a conventional classroom – ADL’s new online school will be staffed by educational professionals who understand their emotional needs while also maintaining a focus on their educational development.

Personalised study programmes underpinned by therapeutic methodologies, which are embedded in teaching throughout ADL’s existing programmes, will enable teachers to create unique, highly engaging lessons that allow students to work at their own pace and according to their individual learning styles – key to unlocking their potential.

Ric Belfield, Commercial Manager at ADL explained, “To bring out the best in these vulnerable young people it is essential to build up a relationship and get to know each individual really well – know what their interests are, pick up on these and use them to keep them engaged and motivated. Education ‘by stealth’ works wonders – for example, if a pupil’s passion is astronomy, we can teach English, Maths and Science through astronomy and achieve extraordinary levels of success and engagement.”

The new LAC online school will build on the success of ADL’s existing digital learning platform – since launching in September 2019 as an alternative provision complementary to its registered SEN schools, it has reintegrated 96% of vulnerable students back into schools and educational placement, compared to 60% from Pupil Referral Units (PRU’s). It has also achieved an attendance rate of 95% – exceptionally high for complex Alternative Provision.

ADL already works closely with schools and local authorities and can get a student set up and accessing individualised educational provision within 24 hours of a placement being commissioned. During the COVID-19 pandemic, ADL demonstrated the scalability of its online model, rolling out the platform to every specialist school across Outcomes First Group – it registered 1800 pupils in 3 days, and during lockdown trained 784 teaching and teaching support staff to become ‘online teachers’, delivering 8360 teaching sessions in the first three weeks.

The new online school for LAC will use ADL’s existing technology infrastructure, which is based on an integration of online classrooms, learning management and information systems. Students log in via a password protected platform, directly accessing their live online classroom via a waiting room to enable the teacher to identify all students prior to access. All virtual classrooms are password protected, live lessons have enhanced encryption and every lesson is automatically recorded for QA and safeguarding purposes. Online classrooms have features which enable one-to-one private discussion with teachers including private messaging and separate breakout rooms.

Commenting on the development, Ric Belfield said, “We are delighted to have secured funding from Innovate UK for this urgently-needed development – it will enable analysis of the requirements for an online school for Looked After Children (LAC), with the objective of aligning the provision more closely to their specific needs to improve their outcomes and life chances.

“The huge advantage of online provision for this vulnerable group of young people is the stability and continuity it will bring to their lives amid so much change and uncertainty. We will bring a new blended set of online teaching and learning management tools and pedagogical approaches to specifically target the needs of LAC and help close the attainment gap between them and their mainstream counterparts. This important development will also provide an innovative additional solution to help Virtual School Headteachers to achieve their objective of improving outcomes for LAC.”

[1] https://www.barnardos.org.uk/news/barnardos-declares-state-emergency-number-children-needing-foster-care-during-coronavirus

[2] https://www.nfer.ac.uk/media/4119/schools_responses_to_covid_19_the_challenges_facing_schools_and_pupils_in_september_2020.pdf