Planning the future

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Next March, the Communication Aids Project will come to an end. John Galloway visits one LEA trying to fill the funding gap

The Communication Aids Project (CAP) is due to end in March, 2006. Launched in 2002, CAP has spent pound;20 million pounds on resources to support pupils in England with communication difficulties. These can be caused by a physical disability, a hearing problem, severe dyslexia, or any other special need that means they find it difficult to express themselves.

Thousands of gadgets and gizmos, both high- and low-tech, have been given out, costing from a few pounds to over pound;6,000. By the time the project closes, around 4,500 children in English schools will have been helped with these essential resources, enabling them to both achieve at school and relate more easily to parents and peers.

But when the project does close, local authorities are going to need to step in. Some have yet to begin planning for this. Others are well on the way.

In Swindon the process started even before CAP began, but it has helped to raise the profile of assistive and augmentative communication (AAC) in schools and has given its use additional impetus. This is a comparatively small LEA with only 85 schools, and also a fairly new one, formed in 1997.

It quickly realised that either it made provision within the authority for pupils who needed such resources or they would need expensive out-of-borough placements. Fortunately, they could call on the expertise of staff at Brimble Hill School, from where the work has developed.

"It's a bit like Topsy, it sort of grows and grows," says Jeanette Gill, AAC advisory teacher for special schools, and a member of staff at Brimble Hill. "Once people know these things exist word spreads, and mainstream schools know that if they ask for help life can be made easier."

As the demand has grown, so has the size of the team that needed to meet it. Working alongside Jeanette are three other members of the team: Catherine Williams, an occupational therapist; Jane Tilbrook, a speech therapist; and Pete Holborn, advisory teacher for SENICT and AAC. Holborn sees this multi-disciplinary approach as essential. "We couldn't do without it. There are so many issues when assessing a child. You think you might know but someone else will say, 'How about this?'"

This doesn't mean they arrive en masse to assess a pupil. "We don't necessarily all go," explains Jeanette. "Sometimes it's just two of us. In mainstream schools, quite often it's Jane and Catherine who might try and do some access assessment. Pete sometimes goes on his own because it's a child who needs something like a note-taker. Or I might go along because I know the child."

It may also depend on what support is needed, "Sometimes it's a teacher who wants advice on how to handle something. I go because I can see it from the teacher's point of view,"says Jeanette.

The other thing that Swindon has developed is a lending library of resources based at the school. "The library was set up with the idea of loaning equipment to children for relatively short periods. But once you've given a child an aid it is hard to take it back. So the aids tend to stay with the children," says Pete Holborn.

The library is just part of the investment the authority is making. "We've now got the funding secure for Jeanette's post in my budget on an annual basis. We've got money for additional speech and language therapy and occupational therapy input which I'm negotiating with the Primary Care Trust this year," says Bob Walker, headteacher of Brimble Hill.

"Recognising that it is coming to an end, the LEA has secured a sum of money that we can use that matches what we might have got from CAP."

The LEA is also investing in training. As Pete Holborn points out, "A piece of equipment is no good for a child if people don't know how to use it, or how to program it. The last thing you want is for it to be left in a cupboard."

While all of this might sound very expensive, paradoxically it works because Swindon is " of the poorest funded unitary authorities in country", says Bob Walker. "We are a small, poor LEA with limited resources. I know there is a commitment from the officers. The whole premise of delivering SEN inclusively in Swindon hangs around meeting acute needs of certain children. If they can't be met, the alternatives are hugely expensive."


Of the pound;20 million spent so far only 60 per cent has been spent on equipment, the rest has gone on training and developing networks of professionals.

Anna James, access through technology co-ordinator in Norfolk, says: "We will miss the support and training aspect of CAP. I think the funding for equipment will be provided locally. I would hate to think that all the network it has created will just disappear. I think that is more important."

Doug Spenceley, assistant education officer (SEN) in Northamptonshire who is establishing assessment teams in the north and the south of the county, says, "We wouldn't have been able to do this without CAP. It's a mixture of willingness of support, expertise, networking, all those things, which have enabled us to move forward in an area in which we would have to admit to not having had a high level of expertise."


To help with post-CAP planning, the team from BECTA recently ran four roadshows around the country. Of the 154 education authorities in England, around 50 sent representatives along. These are some of the ways they are planning to continue the work:

* Setting a budget - perhaps based on CAP resourcing over the past three years

* Establishing an equipment library

* Identifying multi-disciplinary assessment teams

* Developing training in AAC l Supporting the networks that have opened up It is a lot of work, but as Doug Spenceley puts it, "If a kid can't walk we provide them with a wheelchair. If a kid can't talk, why don't we provide them with the means to speak?"

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