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Special needs

With ICT expenditure in schools at an all-time high, how efficiently is that money being spent? And why are there such disparities? How can you get the most for your money and ensure your school gets what it really needs? George Cole looks at the broader issues of ICT funding, while other writers examine the key issues in depth

When you talk to teachers, they always say that the two barriers to effective practice are time and money. So how do schools obtain the funds and know-how to make sensible choices when it comes to making provision for special educational needs (SEN)?

Money comes from a variety of sources. Many LEAs keep back a sum of money to meet their statutory requirements to provide for pupils with SEN while others devolve the budget to schools which then have to balance their books. The amounts needed per child will vary. At George Hastwell school in Barrow-In-Furness, Cumbria, where pupils have severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties, additional support is attached to a child which can be as much as several thousand pounds per year. While this might sound like a lot of money, many of the pupils have very complex needs which could not be met at a lesser cost. In many cases schools need additional funds from other sources if they are to provide children with SEN with the same opportunities that other children have.

In practice, many schools resort to fund raising and sponsorship. Some banks, insurance companies and large corporations may support particular schools but this is not always the case. Schools often do better if they contact a small local company for something specific such as a scanner or a whiteboard or a piece of kit for one particular disabled pupil.

However, many schools dislike this approach. Bernard Gummett, head of George Hastwell, speaks for many when he says "Special schools are in a relatively easy position to raise funds, but I worry about the downside. If you make a special case for why you need things, it is as if you are saying, 'We are different, feel sorry for us.' I'd rather we paid our own way." Computers are a priority for the school and they keep upgrading. "Of course," says Bernard, "sometimes this disadvantages us because some of the schools which have been less pro-active about ICT get better resources through one-off Government funding to bring them up to standard. But for us it is vital that youngsters have steady access to good technology."

However, where sponsors are sympathetic and share the aims of the school, the alliance can be fruitful as David Hampton of the James Brindley School at Diana, Princess of Wales Children's Hospital, Birmingham, tells us: "We were extremely lucky to be helped by a number of groups. Our local education authority agreed to fund a major part of the cabling within the hospital, ensuring that each bedhead had a data input socket, enabling access to the network The Masonic Trust for Boys and Girls gave us a substantial grant, to be used specifically to create an ICT network within the hospital. This went a long way to enabling us to realise our dream."

Sometimes they were able to make money go further because of special deals or extra support. Mitsubishi, for example, provided hardware at a very good price while Microsoft provided software and agreed to waive the multiple licence fee. This means they have unlimited access to programs throughout the hospital. Logitech supplied a cordless keyboard and mouse. This does not need to be physically attached to the computer which is a vital accessory when children cannot move to access a stand-alone PC.

David found that advice, training and expertise were just as crucial as the finance. "We were very keen to include videoconferencing facilities in our overall plan, but were sketchy in our knowledge of both hardware and how it works. Picturetel and Multisense have been with us from the beginning, advising us on which system would be most suitable for our needs and offering initial and ongoing training and support. They have continued to sponsor and support us, travelling from Slough to Birmingham to sort out any problems we may have, loaning us special equipment for particular events and always including us in their plans for links to far and wonderful places."

Once you have access to money, how do you decide what to buy? Helen Crawford, one of the winners of the ICT in Practice awards (TES Online, February 9) said, "Every piece of equipment must be solid, safe, reliable and have a diversity of educational uses. I find it extremely worthwhile trying out equipment before we buy." BETT 2001 and the Special Needs shows at Islington and Bolton provide a chance to see product demos and to talk to software developers.

Other good sources of guidance are to be found on the Web. There is Becta's Inclusion site and many software companies have product information or samples which you can download. Other teachers get expertise from colleagues on a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (Senco) forum or other mailing lists.

But traditional methods work well. Many teachers swear by The TES for product reviews as these alert them to new products as they come on the market so they know what to look out for. Increasingly, SEN teachers are gaining product expertise through NOF training. They hear about a product, see it in action and then decide whether it is suitable. This is the acid test - no matter how much time and money you invest, you need to try out the new products in your own classroom.

Sally McKeown is a freelance writer www.granada learning.comspecial_needs

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