I use ICT extensively, even though I'm not an ICT expert. I use it because it can enable children to access the curriculum. Through ICT, our children can engage in ways that would not be possible in traditional learning, such as holding a pencil, or producing high-level graphic designs. ICT can be a liberating force in the classroom.
Our children live in an ICT-rich environment and they need it to help them communicate; many children don't have the vocal ability to speak and so use electronic talking devices (like the one used by Stephen Hawking). Of course, just because you can't speak doesn't mean you can't think or don't have ideas or opinions. ICT means that our children can share their thoughts and feelings with others. The biggest difficulty when it comes to using technology with children with special needs is for teachers and support staff to find strategies to engage children in their learning and to develop support strategies. All this takes time.
This brings me on to my biggest concern at the moment - the current drive to get more children with special needs educated in mainstream schools.
Some concepts are hard to argue against, such as "choice", "equality", "opportunity". "Inclusion" is another. Who could argue against children with special needs being educated in mainstream schools rather than in specialist schools or centres? Isn't it better for both able-bodied and children with special needs to mix together? Won't this form of interaction foster tolerance and understanding? It sounds like a compelling argument, but I would like to add a note of caution. I'm not against inclusion and I recognise the necessity and desirability of it, but it's not always possible in the real world. Inclusion has to be done very carefully and very slowly, and any strategies for change have to be made with considerable care, otherwise inclusion can quickly become exclusion.
Let me give you an example of how this could happen. Children with complex physical and medical conditions need highly specialised provision with constant access to specialist staff and equipment, including ICT. On the face of it, the ICT provision in many mainstream schools is good. Over the years, a lot of money has been invested in putting ICT into schools, but how often do pupils actually use the technology in a school day? When I ask my 15-year-old daughter how often she uses ICT, she says, "Not a lot."
But many of our children need constant access to ICT - because that is the only way they can communicate. They also need support staff - for example, to help them put a CD-Rom disc into a computer drive. I wonder whether mainstream schools will have the resources to provide this level of support, even with the additional funding that is being promised. If we are not careful, children with special needs could suddenly find themselves unable to do the things they had been doing on a daily basis in specialist schools. Any new provision must be at least as good as what our kids currently enjoy, and hopefully better. Anything less would be totally unacceptable. Catering for children with special needs isn't just about widening doors or putting in ramps for wheelchair access.
Another concern is that in our rush to embrace inclusion, we will throw the baby out with the bathwater. Over the years, many specialist schools and centres have built up considerable expertise and experience when it comes to helping children with special needs. For example, some centres have many speech specialists in-house. If the policy for inclusion charges ahead, there's a danger of dissipating this expertise across a borough, and of the provision becoming less effective.
As I said, I am not against inclusion, but any policy has to be carefully worked out if children really are to benefit from it. If we are not careful, the policy of inclusion could face similar problems to the Care in the Community strategy of the 1980s. Remember all the arguments about how it was wrong to keep people with mental illness shut away in institutions and how they would be better served within mainstream society? It's also based on the myth that children in specialist schools don't mix with children from mainstream schools. We often bring mainstream pupils into our environment and we send our kids out to mainstream schools - it's a two-way process. My message is simple: tread carefully when it comes to inclusivity.
Bob Overton is arts co-ordinator at Mere Oaks school in Wigan, which caters for children with physical or medical difficulties. He was winner of the Inclusion secondary award at this year's TES ICT in Practice Awards. Bob was talking to George Cole