Case Study One: Apricot Online

Brief description of the provision

Apricot Learning Online is an online provision and can be accessed from anywhere in the UK. Head office consists of a small team of full time members of ‘operations’ staff; Managing director, director, education coordinator and technician.   Teachers are recruited on a freelance basis and they work from wherever they are based in the UK. All academic subjects up to A-level can be offered. All lessons function through a virtual classroom and are physically based within the commissioning school/AP. The lessons are monitored and inspected remotely by the Apricot Online team. The provision can be short or long term depending on what the commissioner seeks. Some young people use the provision for an entire academic year, whereas others may only dip into it for a short period of time.

Content, delivery and accreditation

Apricot Online can deliver the following:

  • GCSE in any subject
  • iGCSEs
  • Functional skills qualifications
  • Literacy and numeracy
  • ASDANs[1]
  • Modular QCF qualifications[2]
  • Work related learning like assisting people with CVs and covering letters

Apricot Online has a large network of qualified teachers with different specialisms who can be employed on relevant assignments as they are commissioned. Due to the focus on core subjects, Apricot is most commonly commissioned to provide English, Maths and Science. Schools can organise their own Apricot group whereby they dictate the subject, time, exam board and how they want learners to engage with one another. The alternative is that they commission a place in an existing nationwide Apricot group. These have set timetables that the commissioner will slot a young person into. There is also an option for one-to-one online lessons for those who may struggle to interact positively with peers in an online environment or where group timetables are incompatible with their availability. This is the most expensive option.

All Apricot Online lessons are live and take place through virtual classrooms. Up to ten young people are logged into a lesson with one teacher. Sarah, an experienced teacher, felt that 10 was an absolute maximum, as the teacher only has one pair of hands and there are lots of things to ‘control’ in the online environment. The teachers use microphones and speak throughout the lesson. It is up to the young person how they respond; they can use a microphone, or they can reply by typing a message into the chat box. The lesson includes a PowerPoint, and teachers often put up links to web-based resources and set and mark homework.

Apricot Online can provide all academic subjects and forms of accreditation that would be appropriate at GCSE level. They regularly support young people towards recognised qualifications. They require a physical school/organisation to manage the examination entry aspect but can offer support in finding registered exam centres. They can also support students with course work; documents can be exchanged via the learning platform.

Identifying Features of Quality

Mission/aims/purpose

Broadly speaking, Apricot Online’s aim is to provide an academic education to young people who are not otherwise accessing this, or who may benefit from accessing this in an online environment. The specific goals of the provision are decided in consultation with the commissioner at the beginning of the contract. Apricot Online has a network of teachers who can cover key GCSE curriculum areas. One of their main goals is to reengage the young person in learning, and sometimes with school too: “We’d like them all to go back to school but it’s not always possible but getting them reengaged is absolutely paramount” (head office staff). The focus is on the academic progress of the young person, improvements in attendance, and improvements in soft skills such as confidence and motivation.

Target Group

This provision could be for quite a diverse range of young people. They tend to work with young people with BESD, mental health problems, long-term/severe health problems, poor attendance, SEN such as autism, and anxious or school phobic young people.   They see the online provision as appealing to some young people, particularly features like the chat box:

“there is no necessity to speak and so instantly this appeals to young people who are mostly involved in this technology anyway on a social level but also those who have anxieties and issues around attendance at school, if they’ve been bullied or whatever, and it offers them a way of hiding behind a bit of a shield really whilst at the same time participating in a live and interactive teaching situation with a qualified teacher and it is generally a really successful way of engaging young people” (manager).

Apricot Online believe that, because of the nature of their target group, they have to be innovative and creative in order to create engaging lesson because the “usual mould” has not been effective for these young people. They see blended learning packages as key to addressing the diverse need of these learners. Whilst stressing the importance of creativity, the Apricot Online team are keen to stress that technology is just a means to an end. It is not ‘good’ or ‘innovative’ in itself, rather it is a facilitative tool for the engagement and learning of this particular group of young people.

Recruiting

Apricot Online have a small team of staff who work at ‘HQ’ and they have a rolling advertisement for teachers, who work on a freelance basis. They only have one full time member of teaching staff, but they are planning to have one full time teacher in each of the key curriculum areas. They envisage that they will eventually have full time department heads who can ensure the quality of provision in their own subject area and build up banks of work. There are no plans to have a lot of full time members of staff, as the current set-up provides them with a high degree of financial security and flexibility.

Because of the online environment they have thought very carefully about recruitment. This was noted in an LA quality assurance report. They follow guidelines for safer recruiting procedures and check referees carefully. As well as checking that teachers have the appropriate qualifications (all teachers have QTS and are subject specialists) and experience, they seek original copies of documentation as part of their safeguarding procedures. They also question applicants about why they want to work in an on-line environment and with these types of young people. They look for people with experience of re-engaging reluctant learners. Once recruited, staff go through an induction and training process. This induction focuses on working with vulnerable and challenging young people in an online environment.

The permanent teacher – Sarah

Sarah (pseudonym) has been with Apricot Online for two and half years. She has worked as an online teacher for seven and a half years, before which she worked as a mainstream Mathematics teacher for 14 years. She was initially attracted to online teaching because it fitted her changed circumstances in terms of having a family and moving to a rural location. She is contracted for 26 hours a week and spends 22 of these doing face to face teaching. There is plenty of work available.   The other hours are spent in her new role as head of mathematics. She is helping to build up the department and create schemes of work. She is the main group mathematics teacher at Apricot Online.

She has been there almost from the very beginning, when she did mainly one to one teaching; she is one of their most experienced teachers. When Apricot Online teachers are offered a new assignment they are told the age of the pupil, what they would be teaching and when, and then they decide whether or not to take the assignment. The situation is slightly different for Sarah as she is the only contracted member of teaching staff so she has an obligation to do a certain amount of teaching and to accept certain jobs.

Staff

All of the teachers have QTS and “preferably a good deal of experience”. The manager‘s background includes work in senior leadership in an alternative provision. Once staff start working for Apricot Online they enter a quality assurance process; they submit a detailed lesson plan and are observed teaching a lesson once a term. Because the staff are freelance, the manager believes it would be difficult to impose an appraisal system. However, Apricot Online tend to find that, because of the nature of their recruitment process, they attract staff who want feedback and want to improve their practice.

Safety and Safeguarding

Apricot Online place high importance on safeguarding: “Safeguarding, in my opinion, is not negotiable in any way and that comes from my background in alternative education” (manager). This was picked up in both of their LA quality reports, where their safeguarding was described as “robust” (2014):

“extreme care is taken over both safety and safeguarding issues. As well as all the guidance already referred to there are ongoing reminders on-line and on the VLE about how to deal with problems and the head of school is the fully trained child protection officer for the company. Scrutiny of a sample tutor’s file also clearly indicated that all the necessary checks are carried out and that monitoring is tight” (2012 LA quality report)

Apricot Online use a double-encrypted server to protect student information. Their staff access safeguarding training provided by a Local Authority.   All lessons are audio-recorded for safeguarding purposes. Risk assessment information is shared on a need-to-know basis only. Apricot Online only recruit staff in the UK, as they feel that this makes it easier for them to carry out their safeguarding procedures. As part of their safeguarding procedures they have to see original copies of documentation.

Monitoring of progress

Apricot Online have a detailed lesson plan template which includes pre and post lesson checks, information on the young people and their national curriculum levels, and a typical lesson structure which includes a starter, main task and plenary.

They do a “holistic assessment of needs” when the young people join them, including academic, social, emotional, therapeutic and medical needs. They often find that attainment on entry differs from school data, particularly if the student has been absent from school for a while. The initial Apricot Online assessment is used to plan the teaching programme.

They use the referral process to put together an individual learning plan (ILP) which identifies very precise targets across attendance, attainment, attitude to learning and behaviour; this is updated every six weeks. They then measure progress and success against this.   Weekly reports are generated to chart each pupil’s progress, and half termly reports include more extensive teacher comments and ILP targets. Reporting covers academic skills progress and monitoring of soft skill progression, which refers to the punctuality, motivation, confidence and readiness to learn of the young person. This is captured via qualitative commentaries from the teachers. They also include pupil comments in these reports, which are then sent to the commissioner (or the parent/carer where they are the main point of contact). Apricot Online seeks feedback from the commissioning school, and schools monitor them against the contractual agreement. Attainment and progress data is analysed by Apricot Online and this suggests that most students are making progress on their courses.

Inclusion

The online environment is inclusive of the majority of young people. Apricot Online is able to provide fully differentiated learning. This is part of the lesson planning system. As well, the online platform has break-out rooms so students can work on different tasks. There are no more than 10 students in a class, with the average being 5 or 6.

If it becomes apparent that there is a large discrepancy in the ability of young people in the group, they are able to adjust group size and to move young people with little disruption, as the young people cannot see who else is in any of the groups. They can also have young people of different ages in the same group – because the young people do not know the details of who else is in the group, any potential embarrassment is avoided.

Apricot Online provides an online ‘inclusion room’. Schools can purchase a number of places and, on any day, if a child is removed from a lesson into a physical ‘inclusion room’ in the school, they can log into these lessons. The manager told us that

“for a lot of the inclusion room situations that occur in school the learning – if you can call it that – is just so unstructured and is probably just a pile of worksheets and so it is not a constructive use of the time. Whereas if they are joining in in our inclusion activity at least there is a qualified teacher there who is doing something interactive and worthwhile with them”.

These sessions run on a six-week rotation; as a point of quality the Apricot Online team do not feel that a child should be in an inclusion room for more than six weeks. Teachers plan engaging activities rather than following the curriculum directly, and they must be sessions that anyone can come into, rather than being based on a previous lesson, as they can get different children accessing it each day. They provide an hour of English, Maths and Science each day.

Apricot Online teachers are expected to differentiate in online lessons. Some online teachers will introduce the subject/task to all of the young people, and then can put them into different virtual classrooms where they do differentiated tasks before coming back together. The teacher can monitor and support them in these virtual break-out rooms.

Transitions

Apricot Online have a referral form for commissioners to fill in. This has space to document contact details, academic information, and risk assessment information. They stress the importance of this document in the holistic assessment of a young person’s needs. Apricot Online are praised in their LA QA for being proactive about gathering the information they require from the commissioning organisation. They also do their own assessment of the young person’s learning needs to supplement the information they receive from the commissioner.

When the young person begins with the provision they and their parents receive a welcome pack and students sign an “acceptable use agreement”. They receive an easy -o-follow booklet on how to use the learning platform, how to use the virtual learning environment and how to stay safe online. In addition, all students are provided with a one-to-one technical induction with the company’s technical lead. Each of the young people has a key worker.

Apricot Online see one of their benefits as their ability to blend easily with other educational providers; it is easy for them to fit in as part of a bigger picture of provision. An Ofsted report praised the relationship between Apricot Online and an alternative provision that commissions their services. Ofsted described this as a partnership, and highlighted the way that this benefits the quality of the educational provision, because this is adapted with input from both parties in order to better meet the needs of the students. The aim is for them to provide a seamless provision between the physical and virtual learning environments. Online teachers speak to the adult who is in the room whilst the young people are accessing the lesson.

The relationship between Apricot Online and the provision, where the young people are physically based (which isn’t necessarily the commissioner), is crucial. A good relationship here improves the educational provision offered as, for example, it is possible for the Apricot Online teacher to forward plan with the on-site member of staff to have certain props/items in the classroom e.g. to support a science lesson “So that joins the virtual with the reality that is in front of them”.

Relationships with students

It is critical that Apricot Online recruit staff who can build relationships with young people. Each student has a key worker who is responsible for supporting them. The LA QA report suggested that Apricot Online lessons had a “very human touch”. Our observations showed a warm and friendly teacher gently coaxing the young people to take as active a part in the lesson as they were able to.

Relationship with parents

Parents receive a welcome pack (as do students): this explains how to use the ‘parent space’ on the website. This space provides them with access to student timetables and e-safety guidelines. Apricot Online seek feedback from parents through a feedback sheet.

Every student is allocated a key worker “who gets to know him/her well and is the first port of call if difficulties arise. One of the first tasks of the key worker is to make contact with parents. The key worker is Apricot Online’s nominated person responsible for the welfare of the student and is in regular contact with all of learner, parent and behaviour partnership. Key workers know the learners allocated to them well. Each student’s key worker is responsible for feeding back to parents.

Although there is a sense in which the key worker is the “gate-keeper” to the learner there is also an Apricot Online team at the ready to solve problems – the key worker in the pastoral area, the head of school for teaching issues, the technical lead for technical issues and the managing director for any contractual issues. Learners, their parents and behaviour partnerships are well served. As well as receiving the regular reports on progress already referred to learners may in addition receive termly certificates recording particular achievements” (LA QA Report).

Relationships with other Services and Agencies

Apricot Online recognise the importance of the involvement of other external organisations, like CAMHS. This tends to be managed by the commissioner; in order for things not to get confusing there needs to be one person/organisation that takes overall responsibility for the young person, so everything goes through them.

Facilities

Commissioners do not require specialist software to be able to access the provision. They need a broadband connection, a computer and a head set with a microphone. This makes the provision accessible and cost effective. Apricot Online have a library of online resources which pupils can engage with independently in and out of lessons. The aim is to increase pupils sense of responsibility for their own learning. Teachers make use of internet links and web-based resources during lessons.   Homework and coursework can be exchanged through the learning platform, so work can be marked and returned. The virtual classrooms enable young people to communicate via a chat box or a microphone, depending on what they are more comfortable with.

Finances

Apricot Online is marketed as an effective use of the pupil premium. They recommend schools commission groups of students, as this means they get a tailored provision and it can be more cost effective as they offer group discounts. They can apply discounts to anyone who can pay them in advance to secure a service. They charge £25 per hour for group sessions and £35 per hour for one-to-one sessions. Slightly different prices might apply in cases where there is a demand for greater involvement, such as setting and marking homework tasks. They have a roll-on, roll-off policy, which means one pupil can replace another. This means schools do not lose out if a young person does not engage with the provision. Some commissioning groups will commission for the whole year, but they regularly get people commissioning places throughout the school year.

Apricot Online’s minimal outgoings in terms of full time staff, facilities and equipment mean they are well placed in terms of financial security and flexibility. Their overheads are low, and because they invoice their clients in advance they are never in a position where they can’t pay their teachers.

Well-managed, led and accountable

Apricot Online’s manager has a lot of experience working in the AP sector, as a deputy head for some of this time. There is a clear understanding of the needs of the client group (also commented on in LA QA report). There are clear policies and procedures in place in the organisation. Apricot Online believe that accountability is about financial accountability “but also being accountable for actually making a difference to someone” rather than just “warehousing” the young people. They are focused on making a difference and are very proactive about having their provision inspected and evaluated, and seeking feedback which will enable them to improve their work.

Sarah (head of maths) referred to the managing director as a true philanthropist who really cares about young people. She said that, in her experience, this is quite rare.

All the evidence suggests that Apricot Online is a highly organised and committed provider with senior leaders who understand fully the context in which they are operating” (LA QA report, 2012).

Evaluation and Quality Assurance

Teachers are observed once a term (they select the lesson they want to be observed) and are expected to submit a detailed lesson plan. Recordings of lessons are observed so that the young person is not affected by the online presence of any other parties. Apricot Online has adapted the Ofsted criteria to create a detailed set of criteria for the evaluation of lessons, which is part of their “rigorous tutor appraisal arrangements” (LA QA Report). This includes a section which is specific to online teaching, and how the teacher makes optimum use of the online environment (p. 11).

There is an on-going learning and improvement process within the organisation. Observations of lesson concerns and problem feed back into the recruitment, induction and training processes. In some cases, commissioning schools request joint lesson observations, so Apricot Online teachers are evaluated by Apricot Online staff and staff from the commissioning school.

Apricot Online have welcomed independent inspection and quality assurance processes via Warwickshire LA, and where they have been indirectly subject to an Ofsted inspection. They value this feedback and would welcome direct inspection by Ofsted. They get feedback from young people on a half termly or termly basis by asking them to fill in a questionnaire. They also seek ongoing feedback throughout lessons, in terms of which activities they have enjoyed. Feedback from young people is incorporated into their referral process and training of teachers. They also have a parent feedback process.

“The company takes care to ensure that its tutors pay attention to literacy and numeracy and this is reflected in the company lesson plan template and the form used to assess tutor performance when observed teaching. When learner progress is not as it should be interventions are timely and focused with key worker and head of school working together. When felt to be appropriate counselling can be made available and the company can tailor personal and social education programmes to meet need” (LA QA report).

2014 quality report: “The provider has a thorough, detailed improvement plan to guide its further development. There appears to be a strong commitment to continuous improvement and an aspiration to reach the benchmarks for outstanding”.

Transformation (Choice and autonomy)

Apricot Online believe that learner autonomy is encouraged in an online environments and that this in turn encourages effective learning. There are many examples of learners who did not engage in conventional learning who engage well in online lessons (LA QA report notes this).     

[1] http://www.asdan.org.uk/

[2] http://ofqual.gov.uk/qualifications-and-assessments/qualification-frameworks/

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