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origins | first diagram | vocabulary | early heroes | the future | informal exclusion - origins

It was a throwaway line really, in 1997, but one I'd been reflecting on for some time. I was sitting in a goverrment Standards Task Force - with the education ministers and senior civil servants, and a few influential folk in the exciting early days of the New Labour government. Someone in the room, I forget who, to prevent their discomfort (!) said some very unkind things about the children who seemed to fall through every project safety net, and fail. I bristled at this and said, rather forcefully for me, that there was nothing wrong with the children, it was just the way that they were treated, and if someone gave me 100 of these children and access to some decent technology, I'd prove it.

After the meeting Rob Smith - a wonderful and visionary man at the department -stopped me and asked if i was serious. I said I was, and that it didn't need vast sums. indeed the money that educated children in conventional school would be enough to do it in a new way. Rob to his immense credit said OK, he'd support the idea - and he went on to be our champion for several key formative years. Paul Jackson, School, Community and Business Links officer at DfEE was a second hero and key supporter from within the Department.

After that first meeting in 1997 Rob nagged me to respond with an outline. I replied in February 1998:


subject: Virtual school/classroom/college‚
for exclusions, refusals, phobics, etc

I haven't forgotten you - As promised I did draft a short couple of sides but wanted to run them past the Barnados people and some others too - I'll fax the final over later today / tonight. Pleased with your interest. 

Prof Stephen Heppell


I got back to him rapidly, having taken an evolving set of ideas around a number of interested agencies.
This was the initial plan - and it is fascinating looking back to see what we did, and didn't do:


Rob, Virtual school/classroom/college/institute/learning community‚
for exclusions, refusals, phobics, etc

This is very much an initial ideas paper, but with the intention of moving things rapidly forward rather than starting a long debate. The pilot project proposed here should start that debate (the mantra is that prototyping and pilots collect needs and indicate direction.

Raison d‚étre

1 A substantial number of young students are excluded in one way or another from institutional education: school refusals, school phobics, school exclusiobns, children in long term hospital care, profoundly physically impaired resident at home, etc., etc. An eclectic mix but a substantial number of students.

The population of elected home learners (parents having chosen to educate children themselves at home) are another population altogether and this pilot is not intended for them.

2 The cost of these students and their fragmentary support structures is vast. Typically their loss to the economy is even more expensive. Annual costs of support may be £20,000 pa; factor in lost or reduced future income & tax streams, with continued social costs over a lifetime over a lifetime, and they will be vast.

3 Our work here at the lab - through Schools OnLine, through our IPPR University for Industry pilot and through other substantial projects, suggests that on-line learning communities can be viable, social and effective

4 There is a substantial pool of early retired teachers who have "had enough" face to face contact in classrooms but who have vast pools of expertise in teaching and learning to contribute, part time, from their own homes.

Putting those together it seems timely to build a research pilot that does the following, and does it well:

Takes three cohorts of children, one in the 8-11 age range, one in the 11-14 age range and one in the 14+ age range totalling 100 children.

Builds three "virtual learning" for them with full support, curriculum focus and activity in a way that the DFEE would regard as in line with national priorities. We would introduce each "virtual class" one term at a time - GCSE age last, probably starting with the 11-14 year olds but having the complete community on-line by the end of year one.

Use retired teachers (on limited bursaries) as mentor / tutors in small but affordable ratios (1:4?) which offer personal support for the students’ ipsative referencing of their own progress whilst offering broader expert contributions in subject specialisms together with criterion referencing of subject progress.

Gives each child and tutor the necessary hardware, support, training and communication infrastructure.

Demonstrates cost effective quality learning outcomes.

Obviously there are many unanswered questions in this short document but research questions to be addressed should include:

The extent to which we can bring children back into mainstream learning by the employment or HE stage, or provide an alternative route to, for example, non standard HE delivery or employment.

The extent to which we can use technology to offer multiple media types so that our learners are not just text driven (since we might assume that their exclusion has been reflected in impaired textual prowess).

A careful and honest analysis of the model of cost and returns with a view to illustrating viability.

The extent to which the different communities that our students would be drawn from can make progress through the virtual’ nature of the school where they could not progress with a conventional insitution, for whatever reasons.

I believe that the many agencies already concerned with these school refusals, school phobics, school exclusions, children in long term hospital care, profoundly physically impaired, etc will be keen to assist. Certainly I already have solid feedback that suggests real enthusiasm.

I have not enclosed a budget. I imagine a two year project but with an option to extend to four years although we are great believers here in producing useful feedback throughout a project, rather than at the end. Certainly if the £20,000 figure is realistic then it is clear that 100 for £1,000,000 including everything would be cheap and viable, which is only £10,000 per student. We should talk about this and it would be interesting to consider the comparative budget for a school of 100 for example? Anyway, what do you think? 

Prof Stephen Heppell
Director, Ultralab


A lot of work followed that year... by March 1998 I mailed this over to Rob Smith:


subject: Virtual school for exclusions, refusals, phobics, etc

The various responses I have had leave me keen to move the "virtual school" idea forward - we need to maintain some sort of impetus anyway and thus I have completed two actions:

I have sounded out potential partners - both Barnados as partners, Science Museum as part of the provision team for example and everyone seems keen, perhaps from ministers perspectives the media are excited by the whole idea too; clearly visibility of the project (and thus a healthy Hawthorne Effect) will not be a problem.

thus, I have sought to put a bit of structure on the idea as below:

Timing, scale and scope
I believe we can begin he project as soon as September 1998 if we move quickly. We should start with one group of 30 11-14 year olds, a mix of school refusals, school phobics, school exclusions, children in long term hospital care, profoundly physically impaired. 10 of these should be of an age that places them within 2 years of completing school.

Prof Stephen Heppell


By By July 1998 we had a name - i'd purchased the web domain myself - wasn't sure at that stage if this was a DFEE owned project or what, and the first meeting assembled. The new website gave these details below - you can see how quickly the final project was emerging (although we never did appoint an iJanitor...!):

What is it?

It is a proposed medium term research project running out of Ultralab with a host of partners. NOTschool.NET is an on-line virtual community of teenagers placed out of school for a mixture of reasons with local clusters supported both electronically and face to face by teacher facilitators at a ratio of 1:4. It must be totally seductive for all the constituents. It needs to make thQem want to take part and to engage them on a long term basis.

Why is it?

See some of the links we'll add from here BUT reasons include the current DFEE and ministerial concerns about exclusions / truants / etc. Whilst some of these announcements have (rightly) focussed on coercing some back to learning this project is focussed on seducing them back to learning and reconises that there are many damaging reasons for children to be out of school including for example long term health care.


The principal objective is not to return the children to school (although FE / HE are not excluded fxrom our Objectives) but:

students to raise their self esteem as learners. to pass some examinations - evidence accredited learning (profile?). to build their capabilities a potential net contributor to the UK economy. to enhance their ICT capability.

teacher facilitators to demonstrate an effective utilisation of the pool of non working QTA trained professionals. to raise their self esteem as teachers . to enhance their ICT capability.


The children will be drawn from:

Around 4 from each category in phase 1 pilot (7x4=28).


Pilot project is for 30 children in phase 1 in 11-14 age group (ideally 13) - for one term.

Second phase 100, including 30 11-14s from phase 1. No primary at this stage.

Each four students have one 'facilitator' - a part time QTS who is retired or early retired or returning (ideally).

The partners provide a channel to experts on-line on science on ecology, music, modern language, what have you. A subset of NC stuff.

Possible partners (interest only at this stage)

Timing Project planning -from now

Identifying the teacher mentors (vocabulary needed), etc from September '98

Preparatory Phase - September - December 98

Phase 1 actual teaching / learning could start January 99?

Phase 2 post Easter 99? at any rate a term later than Phase 1 !

First published conclusions Jan 00

Curriculum and content

It is not likely that we can (or should) cover the full spectrum of the curriculum. Initial curriculum will be supported through the project partners, and will err on the side of delight rather than prescription (with a challen%ge for accrediation - see below).

Likely portfolio will include:


Because we are looking to build a powerful environment with sound and video and other non textual cues and clues we will need to use a common platform, ideally one that looks so seductive that there are some self esteem gains right away. Suggestions at the moment are:


The costs need to be measured against two things:

1 the actual costs of these students' education outside of institutions (home tuition,etc)

2 the lifetime costs of their loss to the economy if the pass compulsory school age with neither qualifications or the self esteem to suggest that they might gain any in the future.

We do not intend in the pilot to replace any of the tuition service provided. This is a pilot and they are real students.


Each facilitator will also be an small scale action researcher and this research will inform the project. There will also be a full time research assistant.

Phase 1 evaluation will very much focus on the practicalities of the pedagogic model adopted, the technology and other organisational very short term issues. Phase 2 evaluation will focus on outcomes in terms of the objectives above.

Literacy and Examinations

For many of these students notational literacy is an issue. The mode of study is itself challenging for assessment models too. But it is a clear objective that they will emerge with their learning accredited in a way that enhances their self esteem as learners and their employment prospects.

The intention is to involve QCA and an examination board in bespoking the assessments to meet this challenge. The accreditation that emerges must be acceptable to employers and a representative of the employment sector needs to be represented in this Literacy and Examinations debate.

We may also add a special certificate of participation dependent only on their regular involvement. (iNVQ?)


We need to be really clear that we have covered all the statutory details / obligations / duties (in loc parentis etc)


We need a "quirky" character to inject and maintain interest - thought needed about the nature of this "virtual" person.

So that was it - we came a very long way in 1998 and was born.

origins | first diagram | vocabulary | early heroes | the future | informal exclusion

today, is run by a charity, the Inclusion Trust which I chaired until 2009. You can still find the Inclusion Trust here.

this page authored, and last updated, by Prof Stephen Heppell - latest changes made on Friday, July 4, 2014 9:29 AM