New technology has made virtual schooling an option for pupils unable or unwilling to attend the ‘real’ thing. Sal McKeown discovers what’s on offer

Billie Murram is gathering an impressive set of qualifications and has set her sights on becoming an IT tutor. Things could have turned out very differently for this 17-year-old from Kingston upon Thames. She opted out of school because bullying made her life a misery and she found it increasingly difficult to study in the classroom. ‘I just made excuses for not attending. I had a home tutor for a while, but this didn’t enable me to sit any exams.’

For Billie, the answer was a company called Creating Careers, which runs the vision2learn range of courses, many of which are specifically designed to increase employability. The company has more than 60,000 learners of all ages but also offers vocational courses in more than 100 schools across the UK to help to re-engage ‘at risk’ learners. Billie is enthusiastic about vision2learn. ‘It truly changed my life. I could choose my own hours because I had work I could get on with and didn’t have to wait for the next “class”.  I wasn’t alone either – my online tutor provided support along the way. And I am currently enjoying the Wizard on the Web course.’ 

Children not in school
It is difficult to estimate the numbers of children who are out of school at any one time. The Department for Children, Schools and Families does not publish official figures. Numbers fluctuate wildly and estimates even more so. In 2006, inspectors thought there were 10,000 such pupils but the crime reduction charity Nacro believed it was nearer 50,000. Predicated on figures from a single local authority, the University of Central Lancashire estimated that 100,000 school-age pupils are missing from the education system nationally.

Children may be out of school for a number of reasons such as school phobia, long-term illness, pregnancy, bullying or exclusion orders. Some children stay home to care for parents, some are the subject of legal battles, while others are recent arrivals in the UK, awaiting placement.

Supporting education outside school
There are now a number of organisations specialising in education outside school. Nisai has supported some 5,000 young people during the last five years and is currently used by more than 40 local authorities. Their results are very impressive. In 2006-07 they had 68% grade A* to C at GCSE and 100% A-Cs for A-levels. These results exceed the national average but the real point is not the statistics but the impact on individuals’ lives. Michael is one of their success stories. He was on the gifted and talented register but became ill and unable to go to school. The work that was sent home for him was far too easy and he became demoralised. Now he has good grades at GCSE and has been able to return to mainstream education.

Nisai also provides for Traveller children. During the first seven years of education, pupils from fairground and circus families may lose up to four-and-a-half years of tuition. During the travelling season, they may be in 21 different LEAs in 25 weeks. Nisai is now working with the educational charity E-lamp to provide a virtual classroom for pupils on the move.

In the past, being educated out of school was seen as second best. It conjured up images of home tutors, part-time provision, a diet of basic skills and a restricted curriculum. Pupils would find themselves steered away from science or languages because of the need for equipment or specialist staff. These days it can be a very different story and for some pupils, education in virtual classrooms is better suited to their needs than ‘normal’ schooling.

Danny’s story
Take the case of Danny. He was excluded from school for theft and was subsequently prosecuted by the local authority. While he was waiting for his case to be heard, he was enrolled with Accipio. ‘At first he was quite moody and difficult,’ says Eileen Field, Accipio’s headteacher, ‘but like most teenagers of the internet and mobile phone generation, he picked up the tools and methods of interaction very quickly. He was with us for around five months as his case moved through the prosecution service. When he had court appearances, he always caught up by accessing the library materials and we could track him through our assessment, recording and reporting package.’

When Danny was sent to a young offenders’ institute, he was given special permission to have supervised broadband access. This meant that he could continue his lessons with the rest of his online class who had no idea that his life had changed so radically. He took five GCSEs with Accipio and passed them all with excellent grades. He is now at a local college doing A-levels and has a place at university for next year. ‘He has turned a corner,’ says Eileen, ‘and we are all thrilled at what this lad has achieved.’

Making a difference
Inclusion Trust chief executive Jean Johnson agrees that while school suits some children very well, for others it simply doesn’t work. ‘There is a whole range of reasons why young people cannot attend school, but they are still entitled to an education,’ says Jean. ‘Many of our young people are very talented and work at a level far beyond their peers in school, although this will tend to be in one or two specific areas.’ The Inclusion Trust caters for 750 children and would like to expand provision. The young person is at the centre of the process and Jean feels that this is the key to success, ‘We can take a child-centred approach to learning. That’s not always easy in an education system driven by standards and league tables.’

Eileen Field thinks it is the lack of confrontation in the virtual classroom that makes a difference. ‘There is no grief over gum or baseball caps or body language. All of this is taken out of the equation so the “classroom” becomes a peaceful place with a focus on learning. It is also a respectful place, where people treat one another with politeness.’ While it is true that some pupils still choose not to participate, this is not as stressful as in a conventional classroom. For a start, the online teacher is not facing open defiance or sulks and there is no audience to encourage bad behaviour.

But don’t pupils miss out on the social aspect of schooling? Eileen thinks not. ‘Accipio works well because pupils meet online or via voice and text messaging and, form friendships.’ Lorna, a student with ME who is studying with the Nisai Virtual Academy, says, ‘I have made friends through this. It’s nice to be able to talk to people in the same situation. I do not feel so isolated any more.’

Out of school learning is no longer just a stopgap. It would seem that some learners relish the opportunity to reinvent themselves.  They start again without the weight of teachers’ expectations or the pressures of their peer group. They can try being a different person, with a different life, and for some it really works. It’s the ultimate makeover.

There are several different options for ‘home working’. The Bridge Academy, a pupil referral unit in Hammersmith & Fulham, lets students work from home and set their own curriculum for one day per week. They use the Studywiz learning platform from Etech and pupils are encouraged to make more use of local resources and involve their family in their learning too.

Jacob is a Year 7 pupil who has spent most of his school life in a special school. He gets violent when he is frustrated and his teachers have been keen to find resources to help him make progress at school. He has been given a multimedia package, including an Apple computer, printer, digital camera, broadband and a set of resources on Studywiz. He has been practising basic number and literacy skills in his own time and, with the support of his foster carers, he has recently made several months’ progress in his reading. 

All the pupils at the Bridge Academy can work on assignments or blogs, view curriculum materials and discuss them via email or online chat. Again there is a great emphasis on more creative forms of learning so they have an online gallery where pupils can showcase paintings, photographs, audio and movies. Andre Bailey, assistant head of eLearning at the Bridge Academy, says: ‘Jacob has now become a proficient user of multimedia. He has captured and edited digital video and is frequently found in the ICT department creating “beats” during his breaks.’

The logical extension to teaching a small number of children out of school would be to teach all pupils in this way, at least for part of their school life. The Leigh Technology Academy in Dartford, Kent has taken the first steps in experimenting with this. Their school was closed for two weeks after the Christmas break, prior to the opening of their new building. The Academy used TALMOS, a learning platform provided by Core Education, to ensure that all pupils could work from home. Staff were initially apprehensive. They thought it would have a bad effect on their relationship with the students but now they can see many advantages.

Tony Ryan, the principal, says, ‘Pupils like working online and are motivated by short intense bursts of work, using multimedia resources. It has also helped us to deal better with a small group of pupils who do not cope well with school life. We have a few students who have problems with social skills. They come to school and get a lot out of it for short periods but after a few weeks, they are in danger of exclusion because of their behaviour.’

In the past, a school like the Leigh Technology Academy would have collected together handouts and textbooks, and parents would have been expected to supervise the work. Some pupils would have completed all the tasks while others would have done nothing. ‘TALMOS provides small chunks of learning and pupils have to complete a unit before they can move up to the next level,’ says Tony. ‘This means that there is more systematic coverage of topics and progress is monitored more rigorously.’

Tony Ryan believes that this type of education is also a good preparation for working life and he may have a point. The world of work has changed beyond all recognition in the UK. Factories are largely a thing of the past and many people will be home workers or freelancers who will need to be ‘self starters’ with first-rate computer and web skills and the ability to work independently. If this is to be the pattern for many of tomorrow’s workers, then the virtual classroom is an excellent grounding and could be of great benefit to all learners.

Sal McKeown is a freelance journalist