John Liddle, head of services to education, AbilityNet East, challenges readers to think anew about the effective use of technology to support children with special educational needs and how this has implications for the role of learning support assistants.

When a pupil has been identified as having special educational needs, the parents and support team often have to struggle to ensure that additional support is put in place for that pupil. Invariably, the focus of that battle is to gain one-to-one human support for the pupil through a dedicated learning support assistant (LSA).

At the national computing and disability charity AbilityNet we are firm believers in the powerful enabling force of properly selected and supported assistive technology. We know that optimising the use of appropriate technology in school can make a huge difference to the independence, achievement and inclusion of pupils with special educational needs.

Unfortunately we have not found this belief to be universally recognised by our colleagues in the education system. Applications for pupils to have additional support through technology are usually made after LSA assistance has been secured – almost as an afterthought. It would seem more logical to consider the independence-giving potential of technology in tandem when calculating the amount of LSA time that the pupil will require in the first place.

‘Velcroed’ support The result of this tendency is to nurture a culture of dependency where pupils are working with an adult ‘Velcroed’ to their side for much of the school day, when effective intervention through assistive technology may have given that pupil a greater level of autonomy.

Whilst having adult support readily available may ensure that the pupil’s additional needs are met, it gives the child a different of experience of school life from his or her peers. It may impact on the child’s motivation, confidence and most certainly does not prepare pupils for life after school when such close attendance by an adult helper is unlikely to be provided.

Through our work across all age ranges, we at AbilityNet have met numerous young adults whose experience in school has been dominated by the presence of LSAs. Having become totally reliant on the support they enjoyed throughout their school life, they later found that without that help they were unable to achieve all the things they could at school. This has in many cases led to greater difficulty in accessing either employment or further education.

Independence is the key Recently, one of our assessors was visiting a school conducting an assessment of a young man with a visual impairment. Amongst other things, the pupil’s full-time LSA was responsible for assisting the pupil with accessing both close-up materials and what the teacher was writing on the whiteboard.

Our assessor introduced the pupil and the support team to a Magnilink Student CCTV. This device has a camera and a screen which provides a magnified image of whatever the camera is pointed at. It is a new breed of CCTV which has both close-up and distance viewing modes meaning that it can be used to access both textbooks and the whiteboard at the front of the class. When the pupil saw this equipment he realised immediately the difference that it would make. He turned with a smile to his LSA and said ‘I won’t need you now Miss!’ Surprisingly enough, one year later when we contacted the school to find out how the pupil was getting on, we found that the pupil was getting good use from this equipment but was nevertheless still receiving full-time LSA hours.

This anecdote is not a ‘one-off’. It is indicative of the culture which exists throughout the education system. When you have fought so hard to ensure that your child or a child that you are working with has adequate support hours, you are then very loathe to give these up – perhaps even when a solution offering greater independence is very clear.

The need for a culture shift
We believe that a complete culture shift is needed if hard-working schools, SENCOs and LSAs are to achieve their shared aim of ensuring that all the SEN pupils they are working with have achieved the maximum level of independence, inclusion and achievement of which they are capable when they come to leave. The application of assistive technology and the benefits that this can bring needs to be moved up the agenda with a view to ensuring that children can access it as a matter of right.

The perceived importance of technological intervention Assistive technology is not given the importance it needs in the whole process of supporting the child and reviewing their progress. Physiotherapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists are often involved with the child throughout their school life – contributing to initial statement preparation and annual reviews. Within most local authorities the assistive technology input is not given such prevalence. The assistive technology adviser is usually consulted on a one-off basis or, at most, every three or four years, most often with no mechanism for evaluation, review and the additional support of the pupil during the period in between.

It is certainly rare, for example, to see the assistive technology adviser invited to the pupil’s annual review meeting. This is the attitude that AbilityNet calls ‘assess and run’, and it is this mind-set that results in the great potential of the technological solution in place being wasted or at best, under-exploited.

Schools and support teams are often dependent on external support to ensure that equipment in place for a pupil with special educational needs is being used by that pupil to its maximum potential. It is not only a question of how the hardware and software works but a need to understand how it is going to be used within the curriculum and be commensurate with the needs of the child as he or she moves through the educational system.

Reduced LSA hours We recognise that many children will always need full-time learning support assistance. Nevertheless, we believe that with careful planning and the proper application and support of assistive technology, the number of learning support assistant hours required by some children could be reduced, sometimes dramatically. Fundamentally, granting a pupil a greater level of independence is a wonderful achievement for those working with the pupil; enhancing both the pupil’s experience of school and perhaps even more importantly their opportunities in future life.

In some cases the school could well implement a structured ‘weaning-off’ plan which would prepare the pupil for post-school life and widen their horizons for employment and continuing education. Furthermore, in those instances where the LSA’s presence is essential in each lesson (perhaps for health reasons), we still believe that the available technological solutions could give that pupil greater independence in many instances enabling the LSA to distance themselves physically from the pupil with all the attendant benefits that this implies for the integration of that child with his/her classmates and the increased self esteem of the pupil.

Independence versus achievement Any improvement in the child’s independence should, of course, not be to the detriment of the child’s academic achievements in school. There are a plethora of things which LSAs across the country would like to do for their pupils to improve their curriculum access, which at the moment they simply do not have time to do. We envisage that with the appropriate use of assistive technology, LSAs should be able to develop a number of hours per week where they can work away from the pupil and utilise their time to develop the resources which would maximise the child’s access to the curriculum. Any LSA would already have a ‘shopping list’ of tasks which they would dearly love to accomplish if only they had the time. These might include such activities as:

  • Scanning existing materials so that the electronic documents can be read by the computer for those with literacy difficulties, visual perception difficulties or visual impairment.
  • Producing word banks for software such as WordBar or Textease (a talking word processor with a word bank facility that many schools have).
  • Creating grids for programs such as clicker (sound supported word and sentence grids at the bottom of the page, used in many schools especially for SEN).
  • Producing dyslexia-friendly resources taking existing electronic documents and editing them to support children as appropriate, eg changing font size or style, redesigning the task or re-structuring it into more appropriately sized ‘chunks’ etc.
  • Managing vocabularies in word prediction programs.
  • Creating topic vocabulary in word prediction programs such as Penfriend XP or Cowriter SE.
  • Teaching keyboarding skills using an appropriate computer-based tutorial package to groups of children who would benefit from using a computer to record and produce information rather than handwriting. This can be of benefit to all children of course.
  • Downloading and adapting new resources for particular pupils.

If LSA time is invested wisely there should be no sacrifice in the achievement of the child and their greater independence would only reap rewards.

Other benefits from independence
Maximising the use of assistive technology for children with SEN can result in substantial cost savings to LEAs or schools who are offsetting the budgetary impact of paying an LSA for many years against the one-off cost of equipment and an additional support package. Another corollary of a cultural shift towards ICT and the consequent repositioning of assistive technology higher up the educational agenda is the possible reduction in ‘statementing’. If less LSA support is needed, the tendency to statement as a means of obtaining the extra finance required to achieve it will lessen. It may therefore prove that in the long-term more pupils are on a reduced level of support denoted by ‘school action’ or ‘school action plus’. Finally, if SEN pupils are no longer tied to the virtually continual presence of an attendant adult, they are more likely to bond and integrate with their peer group.

Lack of priority Assistive technology is widely being used by students on an individual level and has been for a number of years. Nevertheless, we still struggle to identify a case study of a pupil where there has been a direct link between the application of this technology and the pupil achieving greater independence or even reduced LSA hours. Given the wealth of evidence that AbilityNet has on the potential for independence which assistive technology can represent across all age ranges and in all life situations, why is it that it is so difficult to find such evidence in the school based education sector?

AbilityNet’s observations of the educational sector would tend to support the view that it is the lack of priority that is given to ICT in the context of SEN which is at fault, coupled with short-term planning and lack of ‘joined-up’ thinking when considering the needs of such pupils, both now and into the future.

This lack of cogency means that the technology purchased is frequently being underused often because those professionals supporting its use are not aware of its full potential and do not know how its use can be maximised in every lesson. Only when everybody involved (including the parents) know how to exploit this technology to its fullest degree, can the vision of it granting greater independence, achievement and inclusion, become a reality.

AbilityNet’s education team is expanding its work and research in this dynamic area and would welcome comments from readers who would like to contribute. Please send your experiences and opinions to: [email protected]