The multi-sensory room at Chadsgrove Special School in Bromsgrove is Angela White's pride and joy. It's also a big hit with the 10 pupils in her key stage 1 class, all of whom are having to cope with profound and multiple disabilities.
The room is a blend of drama studio, seat-less cinema and the sort of disco Austin Powers would call groovy. It has, among other things, a battery of lights, a digital projector, surround sound, floating spotlights, bubble towers, fibre-optic carpet, a water bed, a dry-ice machine and the Kaleidoscope - a one-off piece of wizardry that was once the centre piece of the Play Zone at The Millennium Dome. All this kit, and much more, is controlled from a PC, allowing a teacher to produce sophisticated son et lumiere sequences.
However, it was not the to-die-for gizmos that won Angela the Primary Inclusion category, but her understanding of how the simplest technology can make a difference to a child's education, motivation and self-esteem.
It's not surprising that the apparatus which gives her most satisfaction is a bank of humble switches. Each can be programmed to control a piece of equipment. They are wireless and easy to activate, so Angela can enable each pupil to control a space in the room. "The most important lesson we can teach these children is that they have power to change their environment," she says. "They see for themselves that when they do something it makes things happen."
This philosophy also underpins her class work. Because of her pupils'
special needs, technology will be fundamentally important throughout their lives and it's in the formative key stage 1 class that they must gain the confidence and determination to make it work for them.
In the computer industry, it's common to talk of "solutions" and pretend there's an off-the-shelf answer to every problem. But in the real world there are no technological miracles, just painstaking work on the part of children and teachers to make the best use of the kit available.
So Angela is always on the lookout for the peripheral or program that will help a child at that moment in his or her development. "When a child can't manage something on the computer, I don't think he's doing something wrong.
It's me who's not doing something right. What can I do to make it easier for him?" she says. It might be something as simple as substituting the mouse for a mini-mouse or ditching the keyboard in favour of a customised IntelliKeys overlay.
Knowing what's right for each child calls for experience, ingenuity and constant monitoring. She logs each child's progress, re-defining short-term learning goals and trying to find that elusive medium in which the child can feel confident with technology and, at the same time, ready to take on fresh challenges.
Naturally, she uses ICT to celebrate her pupils' successes. They can watch digital videos of their PE lessons on a big screen (to a suitably awesome soundtrack). Or they can re-visit their topic work via a home-made talking book, alive with digital images of themselves and their voices. Angela also compiles a digital "record of achievement" for each child which is burned on to a CD to show off to parents.
Having Angela as a teacher is a stroke of luck and these children deserve all the luck - and new technology - they can get.
The multi-sensory room at Bromsgrove was equipped by SpaceKraft, www.spacekraft.co.ukd-commerce
Tips for teachers
* Don't be put off by ICT. It can be scary - be prepared to make mistakes
* Start in a small way, possibly using ICT with one pupil for one activity.
You'll get more adventurous as you gain confidence And keep in touch with training opportunities; look at Becta's material on inclusion at www.becta.org.ukinclusionindex.html
* Find out for yourself what the technology can do. IntelliKeys is a good starting point
* Dedicated ICT for special needs can be hugely expensive, so find ways to adapt mainstream hardware and software
* Pupils will consolidate ICT skills if they are able to use computers outside the classroom so offer parents advice on equipment and how best to use it
* Regularly review whether an ICT solution is still helping a child progress. If it isn't, be prepared to try something new
Sheilagh Crowther is a peripatetic English language teacher at Gloucestershire LEA's Centre for Intercultural Resources and Language Education