Study Supporters

An ETF funded OTLA Digital project

Together we can do anything.

What we've been doing and why.

The project was designed to explore the impact of ‘digital home study support’ on

1) the confidence and performance of learners on our English and maths programmes

2) the mothers of children in the secure estate.


Strategies to improve engagement and enhance the quality of the learning experience on these programmes were largely successful although tutors continued to report that learners were reluctant to take responsibility for their learning and continue with their studies at home. In the secure estate, the parents we worked with were experiencing increasing difficulty in trying to keep up to date with what their children were doing in school, which in turn made visits and maintaining positive family relationships much harder.


Our initial research indicated that it is widely recognised that parental involvement/ engagement can impact significantly on learner motivation, aspirations and achievement. Consequently, we decided to explore ways of engaging parents and carers in an effort to take learning beyond the classroom and further develop students’ attitude, skills and confidence in their English and maths learning and improve family relationships in the secure state.

Trialling the use of Instagram

The main focus of the project targeted programmes designed to support 16-18 year olds working towards either their GCSE or Functional Skills English and maths qualifications within a college. Four groups were involved in the research; students attending GCSE English classes as part of their Programme of Study.

Two groups participated near the end of their course in the 17/18 academic year, whilst the second two groups were starting their course at the beginning of the 18/19 academic year. The first participating groups were made up of students from hospitality, music and performing arts, general engineering and IT courses, and the second groups were from construction and hair and beauty therapy.

They were all working towards level two and three vocational qualifications and re-sitting their GCSE English qualifications. Students were heavily involved in deciding which digital platform was best to use, and ‘Instagram’ was used by teachers and students to extend GCSE English learning, support revision and communicate with students.


Tutors said:


- ‘the additional stretch and challenge tasks worked well as students asked for more of these on the run up to the exam… the supportive dialogue worked well, especially for students with additional needs.’

- ‘The videos of annotating an extract worked very well with my students, a large number said that they had used these at home to help them begin annotating.’


Lessons learned:

  • Use the digital platform the students are most comfortable accessing and using, and ensure they have input on the choice of platform (Instagram) to ensure their fullest participation.
  • The Instagram facility enabled learners who did not speak up in class to ask questions and communicate more effectively in the classroom. They began to ask questions which enabled them to improve their coursework.
  • Students don’t always want their parents involved in supporting their college studies!
  • Scheduling is vital – the sense of urgency and engagement levels for students are influenced greatly by the timing of the activity.
  • Females seemed to be more positive about using Instagram than males, and there were also difficulties in extending the use of Instagram across some departments. Perhaps each department needs to evolve its own preferred approach with staff and learners in discrete projects.

Novus have been busy as well

In the secure estate, the female prisoners were finding it increasingly difficult to relate to their children on ‘family’ days. These women often didn’t recognise what their children were learning, new exams etc, or lacked confidence in their own English and maths skills, thus finding it difficult to relate to their children’s day to day experiences.

Novus explored ways in which they could help these mothers engage more fully with their children’s English and maths development, encouraging them to do the best that they can while building their own confidence and skills in these areas. Production of a digital story book for parents to use with their children developed skills and confidence.

Lessons learned:

  • It would be good practice to create a family learning strategy within HMP/YOI Low Newton and promote family learning activities.

  • Being excluded from their child’s education can negatively impact on family relationships for all.

  • We need to learn more from existing (non-digital) family learning projects and what makes them successful.

  • Digital communication has huge potential in the secure estate if security issues can be addressed.

Extracts from the e-book

Sharing what we've learned:

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Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisational practices:

  • Collaboration with teaching colleagues – when students are working with more than one teacher, the Instagram site provides a clear overview of what has been covered and how this was done for new teachers / courses.
  • Use of a wider range of digital platforms in education, and a positive attitude towards doing so.
  • This digital action research project created frequent opportunities for colleagues to begin focusing upon aspects of their established teaching relationships with learners, and to collaboratively explore opportunities to improve learner participation both inside and outside of sessions.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression.

Newcastle College:

  • Direct comparison of group achievement, retention and progression cannot take place as the teaching staff were not working with a sufficient number of groups to have a number of control groups to compare. However, when exploring the results for the more prolific users of the Instagram site, there was a noticeable increase in higher exam grades (A-C) than would normally be observed in similar cohorts. Two students started the course with a grade ‘3’ from school, then achieved a grade ‘7’ after being involved in the project.
  • As our students are GCSE re-sitters, and have often already had numerous failed attempts at gaining a good grade, we believe that this innovative approach did have an impact on their skills and knowledge development and improved self-confidence. However, we are aware that Instagram is not the only factor that would have had a positive impact on learning and higher exam grades, and more research would be required to fully explore impact.
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HMP/YOI Low Newton:

Anecdotal evidence from staff and participants is positive, but due to the time taken to agree policies and procedures, it is too early to assess any improvement in achievement, retention and progression.

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For further information about this project

You can read more about this project on the Excellence Gateway at https://www.excellencegateway.org.uk/content/etf2933