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Mark McCusker discusses how changes to SEN funding are set to transform assistive technology provision for suppliers, schools and users

In April 2013, changes in legislation will mean that, for the first time, Department for Education (DfE) funding will go straight to schools rather than via the local authority, as has been the case to date.

From this budget, schools will be expected to meet the low-cost needs of pupils with high-incidence SEN, and contribute towards the costs of assistive technology (AT) for pupils with severe SEN.

For the first time, schools will be able to define what they do with the money, although many are likely to struggle without the SEN expertise previously provided by their local authority. Schools will have more flexibility but they will need to understand the impact of the changes and where to turn to for advice.

Schools will also be required to provide parents with a personal fund from their budget. This is designed to speed up and simplify the process of accessing services; however, there are many questions about how well this will work in practice. For example, are parents and schools best placed to understand the needs of their children and the technology and services that can best help them?

The first step is to diagnose the problem. An in-depth knowledge of the technology available is required in order to locate a suitable solution to the issue – something that can be achieved with some expert advice.

The changes are expected to speed up and simplify the existing system. The process in place at the moment has been broadly criticised for being too complicated and bureaucratic to enable parents to access services in a timely manner.

Planning for SEN requirements

With parents now able to formally request appropriate support and AT for their children, it is important that schools are aware that they could be asked to provide one-off expensive equipment for an individual child. With careful planning, schools can provide a general level of support that every student can access – a solution that is more cost-effective than spending money in an effort to meet individual needs. For example, making available a literacy support tool, such as text-to-speech software, across a whole school will benefit a wide range of children with SEN needs and will often make them into more independent learners, so enabling skills and resources to be used more effectively elsewhere.

The design and refurbishment of schools also needs to include SEN considerations, for example, in terms of how the layout will impact on children with hearing impairments.

Schools need to understand the available options and what they can do for learners.The responsibility of schools

In September 2012, all schools were made responsible for the provision of AT and auxiliary aids under The Equality Act, putting further pressure on staff in need of expert advice.

Currently, no one definitive list of AT solutions exists, and the boundaries between AT and mainstream technology are no longer clear cut. For example, the first automatic doors for buildings were developed for disabled access but no-one nowadays would think of this as AT. I would like to see a list that is broad and flexible so that it can be updated from time-to-time.

There is a wide range of technologies designed to meet SEN and it is important to know how to match the two. This is where access to the appropriate information and guidance is crucial.

The funding change will also make it law for education, health and social care services to plan and work together. This will mean that AT companies will no longer be specifically talking to local authorities but will have to consider two new stakeholders in the equation – schools and parents. The industry is going to have to think about the impact of this change and to adapt their messaging and marketing accordingly. It is important that all stakeholders have the information to hand as well as the local authorities.

Another consideration is that schools are going to have less money. At the moment, the schools market is dormant; schools do not have the funding that they used to have and this is likely to remain so for the next two to three years.

Changes to the technology market

Furthermore, the prolific use of consumer technology in our day-to-day lives, such as the use of smartphones and other mobile devices, has created an expectation that services can be accessed anywhere, at any time for a small cost. People believe they can buy an app for £5 which will meet their individual needs.

The problem is that AT is a niche market, unlike the mainstream consumer market with its high volumes and low price points. This discrepancy is creating both opportunities and challenges for some companies as they try and balance ease of access to AT with an affordable price. There is other equipment, however, that won’t be affected by technology advances, such as switches to help with access of computers.

The challenge

The challenge created by the change in the political landscape is for schools and teachers to keep abreast of the technology so that they can give advice on its use in the classroom. A student typically sees something that will help them and they are up and running in seconds, but teachers need a much more strategic view of how it will fit in and help with the lesson plan.

Going forward, the assistive technology market is going to be intertwined with the evolution of more general technology. Mainstream devices are going to get better at doing more of the basic things like text-to-speech, and more apps will be developed. This will mean that the AT industry will become more specialised and focus to a greater extent on an individual’s specific needs, which could be anything from a product to help with blindness, to a large button or switch device.

Further information

Mark McCusker is Chairman of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and CEO of Texthelp:
www.bataonline.org
www.texthelp.com

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