The Hare and the Tortoise: Abbeyfield school’s story

support for students with different needs
Four stories of how Abbeyfield School and Academy21 are helping vulnerable students reignite their passion for learning.

The Hare and the Tortoise is one of Aesop’s well-known fables; an account of a race between unequal partners. The hare, who is the confident runner with all the necessary skills to win, challenges the slow tortoise to a race. The tale was written to remind us all that regardless of perceived abilities, zeal and perseverance can prevail over anything.

In our 2017 Ofsted inspection, Abbeyfield school was described as ‘a good school with outstanding qualities.’ One of those qualities is the way we support and nurture all students to unlock their full potential. We describe ourselves as a big family: big enough to make a difference, yet small enough to know each child. Our goal is to make a difference to every individual regardless of their background or circumstance to ensure they win their race to happiness and a fulfilled life.

I work with our most vulnerable children and help identify the best tactics to enhance their learning, given the challenges they face. Every child has a story, and in my mind, there is no ‘bad’ kid. Rather, there are only students who haven’t found the right type of support to help them flourish, yet. The challenge is simply to find the best way to get them back on track.

Our support spans school refusers, which are students who routinely refuse to learn in classroom. Students may do so for a variety of reasons, including behavioural and mental health challenges, including anxiety, which can cause them to struggle to learn in a busy classroom. We offer some of these students alternative provision through Academy21 to reignite their passion for learning.

Out of our 950 children, 10 learn through Academy21’s alternative provision, which provides them with an alternative path to learning. This platform can make a big difference to their academic outcomes; ensuring they excel and develop a love for learning in a place that feels safe.

Without using their real names, let me give you some examples.


Re-engaging with Learning


Lucy is in Year 11. She was completely disengaged in learning and wouldn’t have been able to sit any exams when she was referred to our team. I enrolled her on Academy21 in maths and English. The classes, which follow the national curriculum, bridged the gaps in the learning she missed and she slowly started to re-engage.

Through Academy21’s dashboard, I could keep a track of her attendance, progress, homework, results, and weekly reports which showcased where she was thriving or struggling. As a result of these online classes, Lucy not only sat her GCSEs but also left with a GCSE in maths and English! Without Academy21, I wouldn’t have considered that was ever a possibility.


Vishal was a school refuser who struggled to communicate with others and make friends. We enrolled him on Academy21 at home, and encouraged him to speak directly with his teachers through the platform’s online chat function. As he progressed and his confidence grew, he increasingly spent time on the platform and began to make meaningful friends.

After just a few months he returned to school. When we settled back into classroom, he was able to make friends and even socialise with them outside school! This boosted his confidence and enjoyment both academically and in other areas of his personal life.


Philip was also a school refuser. During the pandemic, we encouraged him to enrol on Academy21 to make sure he didn’t slip through the cracks and disengage with his education altogether. At the beginning, he flatly refused! Yet, slowly, his feelings evolved: he began to admit the online education ‘wasn’t that bad’ and eventually, he really enjoyed his lessons which was a huge breakthrough.

After the pandemic, we gave him the opportunity to stop learning through Academy21 and to return to the classroom, but he refused because he wanted to carry on using Academy21! A few months after suggesting this transition into the classroom, we reached a solution: Philip came back into school to learn under the condition he was allowed to use our IT suite to continue his Academy21 classes too.

This blended approach to learning is ideal for students like Philip. He has made really long-lasting and meaningful relationships through Academy21 with other students that he can relate to. This new approach means he can stay connected to his support system online, while still being able to thrive on campus.


Like many of our students, Kaitlin suffers from anxiety. Academy21 removed her worry of having people watching or judging her. She could learn in a safe space and in a way that suited her, which helped build her confidence and ability to thrive.

Even on days when her anxiety flared up, and she couldn’t join the online classes, she could go back into the video library, watch the recordings, or go through the class presentation again; ideal for homework and revision too!

A Positive Future

If we hadn’t used Academy21 during the pandemic, many of these vulnerable kids would have left school with absolutely nothing! Instead, they were able to continue to engage with learning and leave with GCSEs. Rather than punishing these vulnerable students, with Academy21 we have been able to intervene and get to the root of their individual problems.

As you can imagine, parents are so grateful for this opportunity to reignite their child’s passion for education and give them hope of a positive future. Of course, Ofsted loves it too!

While the expectation is for the Lucys, Vishals, Philips and Kaitlins of the world to slip through the cracks, Academy21 has helped them enjoy their learning journey and reach the finish line with a smile of success on their faces.