If it ain't broke, don't fix it...
When I first heard of the plans by the Government's technology agency Becta to break up its special educational needs (SEN) and inclusion team - dispersing its staff among a number of new Becta teams - I was reminded of that old adage: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The announcement by Becta has caused consternation among the many of us who believe that ICT can play a pivotal role in the educational development of children with special needs (see news, page 4).
As things stand, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this move will result in less rather than more support being available to teachers - and, ultimately, the children who rely on this technology. The fear is that the focus on special needs will become less sharp and thus less effective.
The message being put out by Becta is that this reorganisation will strengthen rather than weaken the support it offers to SEN practitioners.
Indeed, if you read the words in Becta's announcement, you would be forgiven for feeling a warm glow of contentment when you see that the aim of the new e-strategy is to "enable each individual to maximise their potential through the personalisation of their learning and development", and that "Becta is working with all sectors to establish the right partnerships and relationships that will enable the delivery..."
But what does it actually mean, and who are the partners Becta intends to work with? The only name mentioned by Becta is TechDis, an organisation that works with education departments, funding bodies and other agencies to ensure that staff and students in further and higher education have access to advice and resources with regard to technology and disability. It seems to me that the move to disband the team is more likely to dilute rather than strengthen what we already have.
The argument is that, by dispersing the inclusion team around Becta, you're actually widening its scope and influence, as it will be part of many other elements. But I fail to see how your influence increases when you go from being a member of a specialised team with a common vision and common objectives, to a member of a large team with multiple interests and agendas. One of the major benefits of being part of a team is that you can discuss issues, agree strategies and share ideas. Will former members of Becta's inclusion team get the opportunity to do this in the future? If it feels a need to increase its corporate awareness of inclusion and SEN then why can't the other departments work with the inclusion team to bring this about?
This move also suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of how ICT can support children with SEN. There is a danger that people who have no knowledge or experience of SEN simply see ICT in terms of providing children with "the right" technologies, which will enable them to express themselves or their abilities. So ICT provision is seen as simply providing children with tools. In reality, the field of ICT and SEN involves an understanding of a wide range of needs and technologies, and it's about knowing how powerful technology can motivate children and provide access to learning.
Nobody can be expected to be an expert in all these areas, but individuals in the Becta inclusion team have experience in different areas of SEN and many expert contacts outside the organisation. They support and guide a network of practitioners who formed an SENICT community. This is a community of teachers, advisory teachers, therapists, independent consultants and developers who have been steering the development of ICT in the UK for the past 25 years.
The sad thing is that we are world leaders when it comes to ICT and SEN.
Visitors from all around the world come to see what we are doing in classrooms. They buy our SEN software and value our experience and expertise. Much of this could be lost if we don't have an effective central point from where we can get leadership and guidance.
It's ironic that Becta should be taking this step just as we're entering an era in which the Government has a vision of learning being transformed through ICT. If we are going to make that a reality then we need to ensure that SEN is at the core of educational thinking. I'm not convinced that this can happen if Becta lacks a dedicated inclusion team.
There are already worrying signs that SEN issues are not at the heart of some of the latest educational developments - some might argue that they are even being sidelined. Take the Building Schools for the Future initiative. We still haven't addressed the issue of how it accommodates children with special educational needs. With this in mind, is it a good idea to disband a specialist inclusion team?
Change and evolution can be good things, but it doesn't follow that this is always the case. Of course, organisations like Becta must constantly review and renew, adapt and develop, and ensure that they are providing the best help and support in a fast-changing educational ICT world. But in my view (and, judging by the number of messages on forums and message boards, many others agree), it is a big mistake to disband the inclusion team and disperse it. As I speak, there are signs that Becta may be reconsidering its decision. Let's hope that it does and, more importantly, that it reverses it.
Sally Paveley, ICTSEN consultant at The Advisory Unit: Computers in Education, was talking to George Cole