Assessing possibilities

Mick Archer sees IT offering enormous scope for improving the prospects of children with learning difficulties.

It is rare to pick up a book dealing with any aspect of special educational needs and not to find some reference to the liberating power of information technology. Indeed, if there is one change in the field of special education which stands out over the past 15 years, it is the role information technology has played in transforming the lives of children with a wide range of learning difficulties.

It came as no surprise, therefore, that when the Government's Code of Practice was published last year, IT figured prominently. Nor that it was seen as pivotal to the provision schools should make before resorting to statutory assessment.

As the Code states, the critical question facing local authorities in deciding whether or not to make a statutory assessment, is "whether there is convincing evidence that, despite the school, with the help of external specialists, taking relevant and purposeful action to meet the child's learning difficulties, those difficulties remain or have not been remedied sufficiently. . ." To decide this, authorities are advised to interrogate schools about the action they have taken at each of the three school-based stages.

Among the questions the Code suggests asking is "whether the school has explored the possible benefits of, and where practicable secured access for the child to, appropriate information technology . . ." Should a school offer little evidence that it has, then this will inevitably weaken its case for referral. The school's request for a formal assessment may be turned down the implication being that the school has not done all that it could to meet the child's special educational needs.

For the special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) then, this is yet another area in which schools will require from them some degree of expertise. But do they have it? In a few secondary schools perhaps, but in most primary schools, these co-ordinators are hard-pressed classroom teachers with little or no non-contact time to carry out the burgeoning tasks linked to their new role. In recent research carried out by Ann Lewis at Warwick University, 40 per cent of respondents said being a SENCO was not their only role, while 30 per cent had no non-contact time and another 30 per cent had less than one hour per week.

Margaret Bennett, the special educational needs co-ordinator at Harborne Infant School in Birmingham, considers herself atypical in that the school's commitment to special needs allows her to tackle the role virtually full-time. Nevertheless, like many primary schools, Harborne Infants has only just reached the stage of having one computer in each classroom, making it impossible for her to commandeer the machine for in-class support, let alone withdrawal work. There is a CD-Rom on order which she hopes to use to run a new dyslexia screening program but she says she is "only too aware that I can't scratch the surface of what's on offer".

Like most of her colleagues, she would like to use IT solutions for her pupils, but at the end of the day, she says "It's all down to what's available in schools."

So if securing access to IT for non-statemented children is impracticable in many schools, do SENCOs at least know what's available or where to turn? Here there are signs that things are beginning to move. Last May the National Council for Educational Technology published a booklet entitled Access technology: making the right choice, which was distributed through local authorities to their officers who make decisions about the provision of educational technology for children with special educational needs.

While the booklet was conceived before the draft Code was issued, the final version reflected the Code's five-stage model for assessment and provision. In particular it offered advice and suggestions at stages 4 and 5. According to Tina Detheridge, programme manager at the NCET, the booklet was well received. So much so that work began on a schools' version which will follow a similar format but deal with the stages 1-3. This will be available in the next few weeks. "It won't provide all the answers," Tina Detheridge explains, "but it will give SENCOs and IT co-ordinators a framework in which to seek IT solutions and support."

Further down the line, another of the NCET's projects may also help resolve the sense of isolation many SENCOs feel. Since January, SENCOs in selected schools in four LEAs have been involved in a feasibility study of the contribution electronic mail could make to improving both formal and informal communications. The project is looking at the use of e-mail at three levels: informal sharing of problems and solutions among SENCOs, communication with LEA support and administrative services, and accessing a central information source at the NCET especially developed for SENCOs.

Klaus Wedell, Professor of Special Needs Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, and co-director of the project, says the three-month study is not aimed at promoting IT per se. Nevertheless appropriate IT solutions and support could easily figure in the informal exchanges between SENCOs or e-mail could act as a flexible link between school-based SENCOs and LEA support services. In time the information service at the NCET could also contain an extensive bank of information on appropriate hardware and software solutions as well as case studies from a number of agencies or schools.

SENCOs surfing the Internet for IT solutions? It might seem a pipe dream, but when schools are asked if they have explored the benefits of appropriate information technology for a child with special educational needs, it could be a pretty convincing answer.

Mick Archer is the editor of Special Children magazine.

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