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Robot support a big hit for Frome schools

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A NUMBER of Frome schools are participating in a trail-blazing project, using robot technology to help children who are unable to attend school, to participate in classes.

The initiative, led by Somerset County Council, has been described as ‘the biggest local authority initiative of its kind in the country’.

The AV1 robots support children who can’t be in school or college, 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 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.

One Frome school taking part is St John’s First School. A teacher from the school told Frome Times, “Our AV1 (robot) has allowed all of our class to participate in learning together. The children really enjoy being able to chat to their friend through the AV1 and love that he can communicate back.”

Feedback from St John’s students about the AV1 robot includes: “I like the eyes of it!” “It’s cool!” “It’s face is alight. It’s so cool!” “It makes noises.” “It’s big!” 

The county council has invested £145,000 in 50 robots for schools and colleges across the county, with schools and colleges able to 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.  

Councillor Faye Purbrick, Somerset County Council 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.

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