Somerset schools plug in to robot support

Dozens of schools and colleges across Somerset are already plugging in to the County Council’s trail-blazing use of robot technology to help children back into the classroom.

Since it was launched last month, 25 schools and colleges have requested one of the AV1 robots in the biggest Local Authority initiative of its kind in the country.

The devices support children who can’t be in school, whether it’s because they are sick or overcoming physical or mental health challenges. They take the place of the child in the classroom, letting them see, hear and contribute to lessons while they are at home or in a hospital bed.

The County Council has invested £145,000 in 50 robots, with schools and colleges able request them to use alongside or instead of traditional home tutor support. Thanks to this investment the robots are already supporting children who are unable to be in school due to illnesses including leukaemia, heart conditions, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis and anxiety.  The 25 children are across all key stages and range in age from 4 to 18.

The robots are carried from lesson to lesson by a ‘buddy’ classmate. The child watches on a safe encrypted livestream of their lessons on a tablet or phone and can ask questions, hear answers and move the robot’s head to look around the room.

Councillor Faye Purbrick, Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation is delighted with the way the new technology is being embraced.

She said: “This isn’t just about helping children keep up with work, it’s about them still being part of the school community while they are out of the classroom and that is hugely important.

“We’re proud of this project and proud to be leading the way nationally in our investment in this technology. It’s great to see the appetite that there is to incorporate these avatars into classrooms across the county, and how quickly the students and teachers adapt to interacting with the robots. Having experienced the isolation of a long period away from the school environment when I was at secondary school, I’m delighted to champion this approach which can help children through difficult times and ease their journey back into the classroom.”

Originally developed in Norway, national research in UK schools and hospitals has shown how successful this innovative technology can be. So have initial trials in Somerset and the authority expects to see the investment lead to increased attendance and attainment.

Schools pay a rental fee that covers running costs with any ‘profit’ being reinvested in more of the devices.

Nationally, there are an estimated 72,000 pupils who are frequently absent from school due to long-term illness. In Somerset, 35 children on average are referred for extra support for medical reasons every year.