How technology liberates
Students with learning difficulties and disabilities are one of the top priority groups for what several college managers called "liberation technology". More than half the principals and information technology co-ordinators questioned in the TES survey mentioned special needs in their list of spending priorities.
Many argued that this area was at the cutting edge of curriculum development. One manager said: "Today's developments for special needs are tomorrow's norms for mainstream students." His views reflected curriculum developments for schools in the early 1980s. The then Education Secretary Sir Keith (now Lord) Joseph launched initiatives for under-achievers which had an influence on work with special needs pupils. Developments which grew out of schemes such as the Raising Achievement in Maths (RAMP) project were soon found to benefit the entire ability range.
Similar observations are now being made about IT developments in colleges. One co-ordinator from a Welsh college said: "We are forced to go right back to basics and ask what it is students need to learn and exactly how the computer can help. We are too inclined to design systems for the most able and assume that they can be adapted for those with learning difficulties." The force of feeling was reflected in the sheer numbers of managers who volunteered information about special needs, even though this was not a specific part of the questionnaire.
The Further Education Funding Council has just completed a huge trawl or "call for evidence" on learning difficulties and disabilities. Since this will soon be published it was not included in the survey. The evidence given shows, however, that much work with IT is at a very early stage. Several managers were very self-critical saying, in the words of one, that "they had been too slow to take up the issues".
Another tremendous pressure on colleges has come from Government demands to increase student numbers by 25 per cent over three years, which means recruiting from lower ability groups.
One principal commented: "Baroness Warnock said 20 per cent of the population will have special educational needs at some stage in their careers. I would put that at 30 per cent for many colleges." Many managers said that under local education authority control, they had left such developments to the wider schools' sector in the expectation that ideas would percolate through. Colleges which appeared to be most lacking on special needs in their strategic plans fell into this group.
It is on the job-training front that judgments about the use of IT were most acute. Many saw the traditional barriers to training disappearing. "There is no reason why a cerebral palsied woman or a person with serious mobility problems cannot be trained to do many of the new service sector or even manufacturing jobs as well as any able-bodied person using the new technologies," said one co-ordinator in the South-West who was also in charge of special needs.
There are also very encouraging signs that the FEFC call for evidence is itself focusing the minds of college staff on the needs of individuals of all abilities and that they are not just waiting for a prescription from the top.
The two developments from work on students with learning difficulties and disabilities which would feed through most rapidly and effectively to the whole college were reckoned to be independent learning systems and flexible learning.
"If you are to leave any student to his or her own devices then you have to be sure their achievements are part of a coherent programme of study," said one manager. "The greater the disability, the more the challenge we face here. It goes without saying that the more independent we can make the learning of the majority, the more time we will have to concentrate on the needs of the individuals."
A major source of funds to support special needs developments appears to be the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI), which was created by the Employment Department to direct Government money into schools and colleges while side-stepping what was then seen as the lumbering bureaucracy of the then Department of Education and Science. That programme will be all but wound-up by 1997 and there is considerable anxiety among a small group of principals over the detrimental effects this could have on some key developments.
There is certain to be a powerful lobby demanding more public money to support targeted programmes of development for students with learning difficulties and disabilities after the FEFC call for evidence has been published.