If the CAP fits

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Spending pound;20 million is not as easy as you might think ... or at least that's what Mick Thomas of the Communications Aids Project told our reporter John Galloway

Mick Thomas is looking forward to his holiday. Spending money can be hard work he's found, especially if, before you've even got half way through the first pound;10 million, you get given another pound;10 million.

For the last year Thomas and his team at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) have been running the Communication Aids Project (CAP) - a Department for Education and Skills (DfES) initiative to provide specialist technology to school children with communication difficulties who need the help of technology to access the curriculum and to gain independence as learners.

So far CAP has managed to spend pound;3.5 million, of which over 70 per cent has gone on equipment. The shopping list includes 204 laptops and desktops, 215 speech or communication aids and 99 pieces of other high-tech equipment such as closed-circuit TV cameras for pupils with visual impairments.

"We want to say 'Yes' to everybody," Thomas explains. Unfortunately, of the 1,699 referrals received so far 20 per cent have been turned down, not because the pupils didn't need the equipment but because the applicants didn't provide enough information on their intended projects.

One student that has benefited from CAP funding is Derry Felton, a Year 6 pupil at Ryelands Middle School in Northampton. Derry suffered a viral illness before he started school which has left him quadriplegic and meant that he has always had additional adult support and access to technology.

CAP has updated the latter so that he's much more self-sufficient in the classroom. "He's a lot happier," says SENCO Dorothy Atherton. "It gives him a lot more independence."

Derry's increased autonomy in learning is largely down to several pieces of sophisticated equipment, some of which he wears almost as part of his uniform. A Tracker One device on top of his laptop follows a small silver dot on his forehead with which he moves the cursor. Derry makes his clicks with the help of a straw on a headset activating a "sip and puff" system that allows him to write using the on-screen keyboard provided by Screen Doors software. Another headset allows him to use speech commands to write and control the computer with the program Dragon Dictate.

Derry's control of the computer is barely perceptible, but the impact on his work is clear and simple. "I get to finish. I do better work," he says.

The new system means he's less dependent on his learning support assistant, Helen Maule. She is still kept busy though setting up the equipment and keeping up to speed with the software, making sure that both she and Derry know just what the technology does and how they can get the best out of it.

To make sure pupils get the equipment they need six CAP centres have been set up with the help of experts in various fields, including one for deaf children. These are becoming the hubs of local networks of CAP assessors and CAP contacts. Schools and LEAs are finding out about the possibilities and are calling on them for support.

Not all areas have responded in the same way. Some LEAs have developed policies, others have set up multi-disciplinary teams or given staff dedicated time. Everyone acknowledges that the picture across the country is patchy, however, as Caroline Gray from the Ace Centres pragmatically points out, "It wasn't fair before. It's not perfect now. But it's getting a lot fairer. CAP is a mechanism by which things are changing."

So CAP is more than just a project that gives out high-tech machines to children. Everyone involved recognises that without training and support they won't get the best outcomes for the pupils, both now and in the future.

The new money will help to establish the initiative and embed it into the system believes Chris Stevens, Becta's head of SEN and Inclusion. "The main emphasis of the first two years is helping as many youngsters as you can.

What it's done is given us a greater opportunity to back up the provision of equipment with development of skills."

Thomas anticipates double the number of referrals in this second year.

There's still pound;16.5 million left in the kitty to use before Easter 2005. He enjoys spending the money on the right projects, but he needs assistance to find the pupils who need the equipment. Can you help?

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