March 1, 2011
Looked-after teenagers struggle to reach virtual haven
A lack of meaningful Internet access is excluding many teenagers in local authority care from an innovative £0.5 million research programme intended to build their confidence and help them cope with change.
The Inter-Life project has created a secure virtual island that offers looked-after 13 to 17-year-olds a private and safe haven in which to meet. The island was set up by researchers from the University of Glasgow who rent space on a huge role-playing game grid.
Frank (not his real name) is a looked-after 17-year-old. He spent three months working with others on the island, an experience which has inspired him to enrol on an IT course and to go to university in 2012. Currently only 7 per cent of teenagers in care go on to higher education compared to 40 per cent of 18-year-olds nationally.
Inter-Life island is organised to give teenagers a sense of control and ownership. They construct the buildings, decide the rules, design the art and organise the activities, including, for example, a fashion show. They can display their own pictures on the island’s poster boards – allowing others an insight into their real lives. Crucially, they also hold meetings in an immaculate open-plan office of their own design where issues ranging from how to keep the island tidy through to bullying can be discussed.
Frank, who spent 11 years in care, says teenagers are often happier talking through an ‘avatar’. ‘Inter-Life island is a good place for young people to gain confidence and help them deal with issues they might have in children’s homes or in foster care. The listening is better.’
‘Frank’s experience is part of the evidence we are accumulating of the island’s potential,’ says Professor Vic Lally, who leads the Inter-Life team – one of eight publicly-funded projects that make up the Technology Enhanced Learning Research programme. ‘He is an example of the benefit of being in a network of people engaged in situations where they weren’t simply being told what to do or what to learn.
‘It’s what makes this project distinctive,’ says Lally, a professor of education at the University of Glasgow. ‘We’ve not tried to create a campus, a school or a lecture theatre – but a space with potential for shared, co-designed learning activities. We haven’t said, for example, “here’s a model CV, now go away and do your own”. Rather, we started off with the assumption that you need a wide range of skills to cope with life’s transitions. A key one is confidence.’
Activities like the fashion show, he says, not only develop skills in planning and management, but give the teenagers a sense of what it feels like to be in control. ‘The island may be virtual but, and this is a key point, the emotions are real.’
However, Inter-Life, which began in 2009, has uncovered problems some looked-after children have getting online. Despite government action, Internet access is still often unsatisfactory. Researchers have encountered instances of young people eager to join the project who, 10 months after they have been signed up, are still unable to get online.
According to Frank: ‘Most children’s homes will let young people on a computer for one hour a day – and it has to be supervised. You cannot get on to many sites as they are all blocked. Technically you have Internet access but it doesn’t amount to anything worth having.’
Natasha Finlayson agrees this is a concern. Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust which campaigns on behalf of looked-after children, says that while an estimated 90 per cent now have access to a computer, ‘you need to know exactly what that means in practice. If you have 12 children sharing two machines access is going to be very limited.’ Other problems include foster-carers’ concerns about broadband costs as well as the need for vigilance.
According to Michael Pomerantz, a senior educational psychologist on the Inter-Life team: ‘An awful lot of kids in care just don’t have the opportunity to get on the Internet – they are terribly disenfranchised.’
Even those who do, he says, are usually being supervised. ‘You can’t expect young people to try to deal with personal issues of their own vulnerability in a public space with their friends or carers watching. All we are trying to do with Inter-Life is to give them a space in which to do something imaginative. The island is a very unique space. It can help them to make an impact.’
The Inter-Life team continues to work extensively with its external partners to find solutions to these challenges.
More on Inter-Life project