Stimulation from Sweden
It might sound like something that has escaped from Dr Who, but a Datatek is a Swedish computer play centre. The first was set up in 1992, and there is now a network of 35 spread across Sweden supporting disabled children and young people before they learn to read and write.
The Datatek centres were set up by the Swedish Handicap Institute - an institution with no equivalent in Britain. It is run by the Government and the Federation of Swedish County Councils, and has an annual budget of some 115 million Swedish crowns (12 million) and 90 staff. The institute is heavily involved in research and development work - and even manages to find time to adapt cars for disabled drivers.
The Datateks are drop-in centres. Children and parents can come together and learn to play with a computer and use the special adaptations the children need. A teacher with special training is available to offer advice. The Datateks also lend out adapted equipment and computers with appropriate software.
Birgitta Gthberg has the task of extending the work of five of the centres to provide for the needs of children with dyslexia. "Most of the children and young people have severe disabilities," she says. "But more and more parents of children with learning problems, such as reading and writing difficulties, ask for support from them."
The Handicap Institute estimates that it needs 1 million Swedish crowns (80,000) to expand its role. "There is a need to increase the competence of staff as well as dealing with the lack of special software to meet the needs of these children," says Ms Gthberg.
In Sweden, most children with dyslexia are identified after they start at school, which is usually at the age of seven, much later than in the UK. Swedish teachers have taken a great interest in the way in which computers are used in Britain at nursery and reception level, and many links have been set up so that ideas and experiences can be exchanged.
Ms Gthberg says that the mix of ideas from abroad and Swedish national projects has worked well. "The Handicap Institute has co-operated for some years with Chris Singleton from the University of Hull. He has developed a computer program which diagnoses small children who run the risk of developing dyslexia (TES, June 7, 1996). That program has now been translated into Swedish. We have also learnt from our experiences here, involving what we call the Bornholm model. This method uses nursery rhymes and stories to stimulate language development for children, especially for children with learning difficulties."
The five Datateks that are being developed as dyslexia support centres over the next two years will, towards the end of that period, run training and awareness sessions for the other centres so that what has been learnt can be spread more widely.
Software development is a key part of the Handicap Institute's work. It both translates software, such as Chris Singleton's COPS, and develops new software based on the Bornholm model and its fairy tales and rhymes. The contrast with Britain, where the Government and its agencies take a "hands-off" attitude to IT in education, is remarkable.
Every year the Handicap Institute sends a study tour of teachers to the BETT technology exhibition and to visit schools in London. And every autumn it runs demonstration days at which speakers, including some invited from the UK, explain developments to special-ne eds teachers and care workers.
Perhaps one day there will be a similar co-ordinated service here, rather than the ad hoc structure we have with special needs centres such as CENMAC and the ACE Centre existing despite rather than because of government action.