Keep calm and carry on learning – Part 7

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Equality of learning in lockdown …

In the seventh in a series of blog posts, Dr Verity Jones, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE, and Online Project Lead considers some of the challenges families from disadvantaged groups are facing in lockdown and what is needed to combat these inequalities.

Nine weeks in…

 … here in England things are changing. We’re now allowed to sit in a park and have a picnic. We can have as much exercise as we like and even go to garden centres. The first steps of returning to ‘normality’ are tentatively taking shape. However, the outlook for young people to return to schools and colleges is not on the horizon and our youth continue to be home schooled.

For some youngsters home schooling is working. Lessons are emailed in, downloaded and supported by parents and carers. However, there has been and continues to be a disproportionate impact of Covid19.

Home schooling has been dominated by online access. Week after week we welcome more organisations supporting online learning with free access to their resources, daily online activities and a social media frenzy of ideas to keep young people engaged while stuck at home. This blog has done its fair share of sharing such websites. But what about those who haven’t got access to the internet?

This week, the Good Law Project has argued that the reliance on online learning during lockdown is illegally disadvantaging some young learners who don’t have access to tablets and laptops and inadequate broadband. If hardware is available it may be shared by the family and pupils won’t have access to it for school work when they need it.

Add to this how greater numbers of lower income families, in what tend to be  more densely populated homes, are having to turn to food banks. Those pupils who would normally receive free school meals are having to negotiate new systems and pressures to ensure they have food.   In such circumstances it is not surprising that these groups have been the most harshly hit by the virus.

Covid19 has shown the reality of inequality in the UK.

Over the coming weeks it is essential that educational inequalities are addressed else the most vulnerable will become yet more vulnerable. But what intervention would work? Many schools are reporting distributing laptops and tablets to their most disadvantaged pupils, but this doesn’t ensure there is access to broadband or even electricity to support them.  This cannot be the answer.

Our most disadvantaged learners need a clear and supported educational strategy to ensure that the gap in achievement is not increased; every individual needs to be supported in order to meet their potential.

Reopening schools as soon as possible is not the answer.

It needs to be safe for both pupils and staff. Once back, the gaps need to be assessed and the curriculum adjusted. Reform is essential in order to rebalance teacher workload and improve the retention of our teachers so consistency can be maintained for our learners. Reform is essential to rethink the exams and assessments undertaken at all school stages and take account of the inequalities the pandemic has accentuated. We cannot just expect the gaps to grow and mind them.

Our education system needs to be right for all, not just for some. It is failing and will continue to fail if systematic change does not occur. 

Dr Verity Jones is Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Online Learning Project Lead and Acting Associate Head of Department for Learning, Teaching and Student Experience.

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Project Zulu Research Seminar

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The Department of Education and Childhood Presents: The Bristol Inter-disciplinary Group for Education Research (BRIDGE)

Project Zulu Research Seminar 2nd April 2019 — 5pm – 7pm — Room 2S704 , Frenchay.

Project Zulu is a UWE educational development initiative which works with partner schools in township and rural areas of Kwazul-Natal, South Africa. Collaborations between school communities in SA and UWE staff and students seek ways of enhancing infrastructure, pedagogy and learning opportunities through knowledge exchange, action research and practical support. The three research projects presented in this seminar have developed over the last three years and are based on such collaborations.

Dr Alex Palombi and Vanessa Parmenter LD Nursing and Occupational Therapy collaboration at township SEN school

Over the last two years, learning difficulties nursing and occupational therapy students have volunteered for 4 weeks within a special educational needs (SEN) school within Madadeni Township in South Africa as part of Project Zulu. This research used five semi structured interviews and a focus group to explore the impact of Project Zulu on the health and social care students’ professional learning, and on the participating SEN school’s teachers and principal. Transcripts of the interviews and focus group are to be thematically analysed to explore the nature of the learning derived from this experience and the extent to which teachers and principals view the project as a partnership and the extent to which their mutual learning. Initial findings indicate mutual perceived value in cross cultural learning and useful professional develop alongside managing concerns about sustainability and measuring value.

Dr Jane Carter and Karan Vickers-Hulse Reading Partner intervention at two rural South African primary schools

This project builds on current RET funding (An evaluation of the Bristol Reading Partner (BRP) Intervention) and the work to pilot BRP in two of the UWE Project Zulu (PZ) partnership schools. South Africa was the lowest performing country (out of 50 participating countries) in reading in the Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS 2016) and is the priority area of the PZ schools’ Principals. In Feb 2019 we trained teachers in the pilot schools in the BRP intervention programme; PZ UWE student volunteers will be trained in BRP in March 2019 and will work 1:1 with children in the two pilot schools in KwaZulu Natal in August. This work will also add to the body of data and knowledge we have about BRP and EAL learners.

Dr David Wyatt and Ben Knight ICT project at a rural South African primary school

This three year ICT intervention project at one rural primary school in South Africa aimed to enable integrated ICT learning for pupils. Actions at strategic, infrastructure and teacher digital literacy levels were implemented over three phases and evaluated via teacher questionnaires and a focus group interview. Findings highlight the opportunities and challenges of managing international sustainable enhancement projects, and illustrate the critical role teachers play in pupil skills development and the importance of investing in their digital literacy.


This event is free to attend but pre-registration is required. Register here to book your place. 

Empowering autistic children: Experiencing a museum through a customised app

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For most of us, a visit to the museum is a chance to relax, to learn interesting stories from our past. We can probably remember school visits to museums when we were younger. However, for some children, the visit can be challenging: namely autistic children.  

Some research highlights that involving children with autism in recreational activities helps to support inclusion, reinforces positive behaviours, and enhances well-being.  Within this context, a museum visit is considered a pleasant way to spend leisure time, as it provides interesting stories to inspire and engage visitors; while offering opportunities for experiential learning through play-based activities. 

In response to the growing international drive for equal rights and diversity, museums have been encouraged to embrace new ways to provide access to services, with a focus on providing access to people with a diverse range of disabilities. This coupled with an ongoing rise in diagnoses of autism has led museums to address issues of integration. Considering the needs of autistic visitors, museums have attempted to integrate an individualised supportive environment and to provide sensory-friendly activities. In addition, improvements have been made to the physical spaces of these environments. Responding to the prevalence of digital media, museums have gone one step further to consider digital practices as a means of engaging visitors with various impairments. However, the adoption of mobile services in museums seems to target specific groups, and there is little work regarding digital platforms developed specifically for autistic people.

With technology for autistic users being well researched with many attributed benefits, the role of technology in museums represents a timely area of study – this is the focus of my PhD work.

Benefits of technology for autistic users includes:

  1. Slower presentation of information/communication;
  2. Reduced pressures of completing activity (with others);
  3. Computers and technologies can be predictable, systematic and logical; all supporting the strengths of the autistic communities.

With this in mind novel technology programs have been developed to promote various aspects of education, communication, and entertainment, as well as social skills. 

My PhD study has been focused on addressing the potential of using digital services in a museum for autistic visitors. It investigated the views and impact of a digital museum experience (through a museum-based app) of autistic children. One of the main aims was to examine whether a museum-based app could be a mediating tool to enable groups of autistic children to have an inclusive experience in a barrier-free environment. 

My study was conducted in several stages, and cycles of an iterative process were included to help build an optimal version of the touch-screen interface. This study was conducted in collaboration with a special educational needs school and the M Shed museum in Bristol. The design and development of the app was based on existing literature coupled with recommendations and feedback from the participating children.  

So far, the findings suggest that a museum-based app was viewed as a useful tool to provide equal opportunities for autistic children in which to participate with museum-related activities.  Given that autistic people can encounter profound challenges in their daily life and feel marginalized from society, a specific adaptation is necessary in this context (a museum). The use of the app during the visit seemed to act as a bridge and to guide the children by focusing on specific exhibits in the gallery. The data also revealed that the choice of the exhibits through play-based activities encouraged the children to be more motivated and to remain focused on the requested tasks.

Overall, the findings from this study support the idea that:

  1. The use of technology-based museum activities can contribute to the inclusion of the autistic community.
  2. The role of partnerships with specialists from different fields are an important aspect of providing high quality outcomes.

This study aimed to shed light on an under researched area and to inform future policy and services provided by museums. This, in turn, could help young autistic people (and their caregivers) access museums in meaningful and supportive ways – and so they can get more out of the experience. 

Author: Dimitra Magkafa is a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Arts, Cultural Industries and Education, the University of the West of England.