Technology that opens doors

Chris Abbott reports on a centre in rural Devon that has some innovative uses for computers in special needs education.

Modernised, big premises, well-resourced support for people with special educational needs, all set in a rolling expanse of green fields, ancient trees and medieval buildings . . . It might not sound like a local support service for information technology in education, but it's exactly what can be found in Devon, at the Charles Babbage IT Centre for Creative Learning.

The Babbage Centre - named after the 19th-century inventor of the forerunner of the modern computer, who was born in nearby Totnes - has been based for some years at the Dartington Hall Campus in south Devon, run by the Dartington Trust. The centre shares the campus with artists, writers and musicians. Following a recent move to two listed buildings on the site, it is now the only IT centre in the country to be based in 1930s Bauhaus buildings.

Devon is a large county, and it has more than 500 schools for the Babbage Centre to support. Nearly 200 of them have only two teachers. Hardly any primary schools in the county have more than 100 pupils, and there are many kinds of secondaries. In different parts of the county, there are middle schools, community colleges, single-sex schools, selective schools and tertiary colleges.

Given the size and diversity of the county, it makes sense that many of Babbage Centre director John Ralston's 19 staff are not based in Dartington and that Devon County Council has decided to make a priority of communications projects. The Citcom (Children, IT and Communications) Project begins this month, under which 32 schools will be equipped with multimedia PCs, phone lines and, uniquely, portable workstations designed by a local furniture maker.

One project that is very much at Dartington, however, is the newly opened Special Opportunities Centre to support young people with special educational needs, which is run by Carol Tudor.

The first thing Carol points out about the centre is the floor tiles: there are 3,347 of them. She knows because she counted them all after she had to remove layers of varnish from each one during the renovation of the building.

The next thing a visitor notices is the special track running round the room, which enables wheelchair-users to control their movements by using switches. Apart from its practical benefit, this also enables progression in IT capability. "That's the bridge we have never had before between electric wheelchairs and cause-and-effect software," says Carol. "It's using IT for a really positive purpose that relates to their needs."

The role of the Special Opportunities Centre, she says, is "opening doors for people". "Calling it Special Opportunities enabled us to widen the criteria; this year we have had contact with just under 500 children. We can't do everything, of course, and we are very well supported by our statementing officers and the education committee." Courses at the centre are open access, with parents, governors and classroom assistants all welcome.

Carol keeps a database of all the children that the centre supports, and is convinced that the special needs and IT focus can also help to remove other barriers. "We can use IT as a medium to break down professional jealousies in special needs education - IT has a degree of neutrality about it."

She is particularly proud of the centre's collection of loan equipment, which is worth more than Pounds 100,000. "This started when we were able to invest in equipment through such programmes as Grants for Education Support and Training. Subsequently, we have put in bids to our education committee, which has been very helpful. With the loan collection we have at the moment we can be very responsive."

Spending money in this way can prove to be a wise investment, she says. "If we can use the loan collection quickly we can prevent bigger problems developing. "

Of course, not everything is rosy. Carol Tudor says difficulties can arise when students reach the age of 18 and have to give up their equipment. "These children have to be assured of continuity of progression," she says.

The biggest cloud on the horizon, however, is that in 1998, as a result of local authority reorganisation, Devon will become three authorities, with Plymouth and Torbay taking control of their own areas. Several other areas have been through similar changes in recent years - they have been particularly traumatic in inner London and Strathclyde.

The staff at the Special Opportunities Centre are keeping their fingers crossed that it will not only survive but prosper.

The Babbage Centre can be visited at

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