Rick Bell, Chair of the British Assistive Technology Association and Head of Education at Texthelp discusses the ways in which increased funding for SEND can best be used to promote positive outcomes.
Education Minister Will Quince recently told MPs that the government’s long-awaited SEND review, due to be published in early 2022, will be a “huge overhaul” of the system, with £2.6 billion in capital spending announced for special educational needs provision.
First launched in 2019, the review’s publication has certainly been a long time in coming. With more than 1.4 million pupils in English schools identified as having special educational needs, educators across the UK will be expecting to see a substantial sea change around SEND support in the report’s recommendations. There’s no doubt that more needs to be done to address the many failings in this area, both within education and beyond, especially following OFSTED’s warning about pupils facing a SEND cliff-edge once they leave school.
Technology as a learning tool
Described as “game-changing”, the £2.6 billion mentioned in the review will clearly have a significant impact on the level of support provided to SEND pupils. While part of it will be invested in building more special schools, there’s considerable room, too, for improvements to be made in SEND support in mainstream schools.
Greater investment in dedicated educational technology products, games and services, for example, has the potential to create a far more inclusive and integrated learning experience for pupils with SEND. We know from feedback from our users and customers at Texthelp, the ability for SEND pupils to learn in the same environment with their peers while making use of tools to subtly help their learning is an important factor in helping them feel integrated into the mainstream school setting.
As Hazel Lynch, an Education Officer, remarked on implementing edtech: “Our aim has been to ensure that we meet our accessibility requirements, while also giving every student with unidentified requirements unrestricted access to all the tools they need.”
Until recently, many products designed to make learning easier for these pupils were visibly obvious, somewhat counter-productive given that many students with SEND are anxious not to be singled out as being “different”.
That’s not to say that all learning technology should be inconspicuous. Tools that transform speech to text or vice versa also encourage SEND pupils to independently demonstrate their learning which can be transformative in the home environment without direct teacher support.
Now, though, by allowing students to work without the need for visible assistance, and the attention this could draw to their learning difficulty, the use of edtech not only improves the learning experience but also removes a significant stress factor for many students with SEND. Tania Mackie, ICT in Learning Team at The Highland Council, sees ‘the value in every pupil having access to tools that help them access their learning’ as it can ‘only be a win-win for attainment and for outcomes for young people.’
Support shouldn’t stop when a student leaves school, of course. Norway offers an example of an approach to financial support that follows an individual from childhood into their working life. Students are invited to apply for the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) – similar to the UK’s Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) – from diagnosis, allowing them to access lifelong support through school, into higher education, and in the workplace.
The key aim of this approach is to provide citizens with SEND with the right services at every stage of their lives, and prevent them from being on benefits unnecessarily. In the UK, it’s hoped the proposed “disability passport” will do something similar, by preventing individuals with SEND from having to prove their right to help and support throughout their lives.
Investing in training
In addition to investment – in infrastructure, in technology, and in welfare of the students themselves – it’s vital that regular continuous professional development for educators in SEND is funded.
Training to work with SEND students is specialised and is critical if educators are going to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to integrate SEND student’s learning into mainstream lessons. This can involve educators receiving training on complex learning differences as well as social, emotional and mental health concerns.
With only 30% of specialist SEND educators receiving a formal, recognised certification, it’s increasingly important that continuous professional development becomes a focus – staying dynamic and keeping pace with the ever changing landscape of SEND challenges. The net must be cast wider to ensure that training moves beyond exclusively the SEND specialist and into the wider education community with a real purpose to ensure that every teacher can support SEND, and that every leader embeds and develops SEND provision. This must start in initial teacher training and aim to be formally embedded throughout a teacher’s career. With current training and certification focused heavily on awareness and practice, it’s clear that there is a need to create an approach to better embrace assistive technology (AT). Directly addressing a lack of awareness of AT and focusing on how AT can be best integrated into meaningful outcomes is key.
There’s a widely held feeling that SEND support and education has been overlooked and underinvested for too long, and it’s hoped that the publication of the government’s review will go some way to address this. Yet, there’s still a lot to be done if we are to improve the future for those students with special educational needs.