The cash for the CAP communications aid scheme may have dried up, but there's still life in what it stood for, writes John Galloway
Since 2002, 4,500 school-age children in England have benefited from the Pounds 21 million invested in the Communication Aids Project (CAP), which provided equipment, such as laptops, voice output machines and Braillers to those who needed them. Responses to its recent closure have been very mixed, from doing nothing at all, to setting up local replacements, to political campaigning.
There is general agreement that the project has done good work, Mick Thomas of the government technology agency Becta, which led it, reflects that the impact was wider than just on the pupils helped. "More than 1,000 people became contacts and more than 400 trained to do assessments. There is now a force of people to do work in local authorities, evenly spread over the country. A lot of them are day-to-day teachers in the classrooms doing this stuff regularly."
His pride in what his team achieved is tinged with regret as the funding ran out before all those assessed as needing equipment could be given it.
"There are probably about 200 kids who won't get kit. I'm very sad about that. For us that's a bit of a downer, a damper on the whole project."
Whether those children will ever receive equipment is now down to their local authorities. Chris Stevens, head of inclusion at Becta, estimates that about half of those in England have at least given some thought to setting up their own provision. Although it is something they all should be considering. As he points out, "Some local authorities didn't get beyond thinking about CAP as an alternative means of funding. They didn't realise that by accepting funding they were making some recognition that there was a need."
Although the DfES has been criticised for withdrawing the funding, its position is straightforward: "We have always made clear that CAP was a supplement to existing provision made locally and this local provision will remain. However, we are keen to maintain the momentum generated by CAP and we are actively exploring options for doing this. We will also be looking to children's trusts to provide support and equipment to all disabled children in their area."
This is what is happening in Bolton,where the Children's Trust and the Health Authority are together investing pound;30,000 in post-CAP provision. "The intention is that it will run on similar lines to the CAP project," explains Keryn Green, advisory teacher for ICT (SEN). "It will be over and above what we can expect schools to provide."
A similar initiative is happening in Kirklees, lead by Tracey Fillan, a speech and language therapy technical instructor with the health authority.
"The biggest issue is everything afterwards. People don't recognise how much support is needed. Training for staff needs to be on-going. Or you might not have the right vocabulary on the device. Getting equipment is the easy bit."
For authorities not so advanced with their arrangements help is at hand.
One outcome of CAP has been the network of expertise that has been created, lead by organisations such as the ACE Centres and Abilitynet. These have now come together under the umbrella of "Local CAPacity" to help fill the gap, offering assessment and advice services as well as access to a loans library.
Another part of that national network has responded rather differently.
Scope has reinvigorated its "Speaking for Yourself" campaign using the increased national awareness of the possibilities of technology to improve provision of communication aids. As part of this activity Roger Berry, MP, created an Early Day Motion which, "Icalls on the Government... to ring-fence adequate funding so that every person with a communication impairment in the UK can speak for themselves".
His reasons for supporting the campaign. are unequivocal. "It is essential to equality. Without access to communication aids disabled people won't achieve their potential. It is fundamental to learning, and to having a place in society." The growing number of people that agree with him may be CAP's greatest legacy.
In Norfolk Anna James, the county's access through technology co-ordinator, has been working with a multi-disciplinary team which CAP helped to bring together. "Over the last year, knowing that CAP was finishing, we have been getting a very wide range of people together - myself, schools, parents, partners from outside agencies including Scope and Abilitynet - to put together a written policy to put to Norfolk County Council and the Health Authority. The health bid is still progressing but the county council bid has been agreed with schools. It will be pound;120,000 per year."
Like her colleagues in Bolton and Kirklees, Anna was able to use the database Becta has compiled during the project to calculate the likely costs. Children in every local authority in England (except the Scilly Isles) have received equipment. "We've been able to use the fact that we have gained pound;120,000 of kit over three years to say to Children's Services that we have only begun to scratch the surface. By bringing together these agencies we think that there are roughly 2,400 children in the whole county that need this sort of support. We used all sorts of different sources and made a best guess. From that we can extrapolate what costs we will need."
It is support she acknowledges has come about because of "good line management that is prepared to listen to bottom-up ideas within Children's Services. They've not ultimately lost sight of the fact that they are dealing with individual children with highly specialised needs."
* For more information about "Local CAPacity" visit www.abilitynet.org.uk.
* Scope www.scope.org.uk
* Ace centres www.ace-centre.org.uk