Schools are using a robot designed for critically ill children to help get pupils back into the classroom.
More than 700 schools since 2018 have used an AV1, an interactive robot operated by an absent child that can talk, turn its head 360 deg and change facial expression.
The robots are described as telepresence, which is the human experience of being fully present at a live location remotely.
They were initially used to help children with illnesses such as cancer with their learning, allowing them to watch and talk to their teachers and see their friends who can carry the robot between lessons and take them to lunch.
Fifty councils now have the devices, with schools using them to help get children struggling with anxiety or the classroom environment back on-site.
One in five pupils were “persistently” absent in the last academic year, with an attendance gap widening between poorer children and their better-off peers.
At Harris Church of England Academy in Rugby these pupils are invited to smaller rooms, such as a nurture room, where they can use the AV1 to take part in class.
Siobhan Roberson, the school’s assistant head, said five robots were “part of our attendance strategy,” adding: “It’s a real gateway to help somebody who might have been a school refuser to get them back into school.
“It is much better than a webcam or Microsoft Teams as it is interactive. Pupils can use it to feel included with their friends if isolating at home because the robot can go out at break time to enable them to participate in their friendship group conversations.”
Somerset Council, which has 52 robots, said many schools had successfully used the robots to manage the return of anxious young people to school.
However, the council added they were “not a replacement or substitute for long-term or persistent absence from school” and did not replace any medical tuition support arrangements.
Meanwhile Cath Kitchen, the chief executive of the National Association for Hospital Education, said a pupil with special needs had been given an AV1 for six weeks while waiting for their special school place.
But it’s not been entirely plain sailing. Some teachers have expressed their concerns about their use, including over privacy, safeguarding and workload.
Shireen Ayub, the secretary of the National Education Union’s Southend-on-Sea branch, said when four teachers raised their concerns this year she told them to “approach with caution” or refuse to use them.
Parent Lou Whapshott managed to secure a robot for her child who has long covid, but told Schools Week it was only used twice after children in the classroom were “disruptive and shaking it”.
A 2021 evaluation of AV1 robots as part of the Department for Education’s alternative provision innovation fund pilot found “lots of people feared that it would be recording”.
One project lead told evaluators “they have a misconception about GDPR and what it is and what it isn’t. Some schools are quoting ‘safeguarding’ without having/providing any clarity over what that means.”
But No Isolation, a Norwegian company founded in 2015 with the goal of reducing loneliness and social isolation through technology, said there was no recording as the stream was end-to-end encrypted and live. If a child tried to take a screenshot whilst streaming, it would terminate and they would be blocked from the app.
Need for more data
In Staffordshire, councillors worked with education unions to “answer any of their concerns and reassure them about how the technology is used”.
The council’s 25 robots cost about £70,000. Most councils allow schools to rent the devices.
Southend-on-Sea said the annual running cost for 50 AV1s was £23,000 – compared with £850,000 for a one-to-one tutor for 50 pupils. But the council said the robots had not replaced tuition, which was used “when necessary”.
The DfE evaluation found 75 per cent of pupils increased their attendance and kept up with schoolwork and peers under the pilot.
But a University of Northampton study published this week found the current data on No Isolation’s work “limited and does not allow for full impact calculations (including monetised costs to society)” to be made. It recommended “more robust data” be collected.
The DfE said remote education “should only ever be considered as a last resort and should not be viewed as an equal alternative to attendance in school”.