The Department for Education’s recently released SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) and AP (Alternative Provision) green paper includes a focus on guaranteeing that the “potential of technology” is fully utilised to best accommodate every child’s unique needs. With the findings of the supporting consultation now being considered, here, Al Kingsley explores the ways schools can best use digital technology to support and innovate education delivery for those with mental health, learning or physical needs.
The Right support, right place, right time review, which aims to break the “vicious cycle of late intervention, low confidence and inefficient resource allocation,” opens by stating its belief that the SEND system reforms introduced in 2014 had the right aspirations by covering the education, health and care sectors. However, the inevitable and historical issue remains: with insufficient government funding and not enough specialist support available locally. Unfortunately, the problem only appears to be increasing, with statistics from 2020/21 showing that 15.8 per cent of all state-funded school pupils were identified as having SEN – an increase from 11.6 per cent in 2016. This is inevitably putting more pressure on the system, as the increase in demand for services is accompanied by significant delays in accessing support.
Equally concerning, is the 71 per cent increase in permanent exclusions seen in state schools throughout the UK over the last seven years, with more than two-thirds of those pupils identified as having SEN. The hope is that the consultation will address these issues through the lens of inclusion, with the goal not just being access but full participation.
The acknowledgement of the “potential of technology” in the SEND and AP green paper to help accommodate every child’s unique needs is a hopeful sign. Whilst technology cannot solve the complex issues within the current systems, it certainly has the power to support and alleviate pressures in key areas, whilst increasing the customisation of care to meet the unique needs of each pupil.
How can technology improve things?
All teachers appreciate that every child has their own individual attributes. They may be gifted and talented, autistic, an introvert or extrovert, easily bored, struggle with maths or have dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD or a hearing impairment. Equally, they may be challenged by several of these traits – the bottom line is that we can’t paint every child with the same brush.
With such a diverse range of characteristics to consider, it is no wonder that fully investigated, accurate Education, Health and Care plans (EHCPs) take so long to complete – contrary to the ideal of early intervention. In terms of reducing this mounting, long and bureaucratic process, one proposal is to digitise and template it to minimise excessive administration and deliver consistency. Technology also promises to dramatically improve efficiency by delivering the correct support for each child and reducing the time it takes for them to receive the help specifically catered to their needs.
Pointers to identify the areas where children need additional support can come from many sources, right down to the EdTech solutions they use in school. For example, over time, digital assessment tools within classroom management solutions can support, guide and where relevant record the scope of students’ unique skills and reveal where extra support is needed – and even something as simple as quick-fire class surveys can give teachers insights into who is thriving or struggling, and there is a broad range of solutions that support and improve accessibility of digital platforms and ensure schools can offer inclusive and accessible solutions.
Cross-sector digitisation across the education, health and care systems will also lead to another significant improvement: the creation of a secure, central repository of information for parents, carers and professionals where they can upload and share key information and communicate more freely. With the education sector working alongside NHS England, new innovative technology-based tools should lead to better data sharing and resource allocation. This will vastly improve collaboration between those responsible and invested in caring for the child, speeding up their understanding of their ‘holistic picture’ and allowing support to be tailored and delivered as quickly as possible.
Getting the foundations right for schools
Whilst it may seem common sense, the process of fully digitising a future SEND and AP system can only happen with the right infrastructure and resources in place. We all know about the digital divide between schools in different areas, with some needing a significant injection of funding to be able to level up. To this end, in March 2022, the Education Secretary pledged a £150 million investment to standardise schools’ broadband connections throughout the country. Whilst welcome, it is essential that the funding is allocated in a way which allows all schools, teachers and pupils to access the same, consistently high standard of support.
In addition to the key components of reliable connections and suitable devices, it is vital that budgets allow for CPD training to be provided for teachers and staff to be able to effectively use technology to teach, nurture and support the children. This prevents the technology from becoming an extra stress, or even an additional barrier, and allows teachers to become confident enough to use it creatively and effectively.
Tech confidence for children and parents
An important consideration within the conversations about technology is the children’s ability to use it. Some pupils with an EHCP will have communication difficulties that may impact the way they digest or process information. For example, the most common type of need in primary schools in 2021 was Autistic Spectrum Disorder (30 per cent). The technology and resources available must be suited to the child’s specific needs; however, it must be noted that many children on the Autistic Spectrum have responded well to engagement through technology when matched with the right resource.
Another area where technology can have an impact is providing information for parents. The review showed that families are not clear ‘what they should reasonably expect from their local mainstream settings, and lose confidence that these settings can meet their child’s needs.’ With access to the details of their child’s EHCP, parents are better placed to fully understand the services being provided to support their child’s personal and academic goals – and this, of course, is supported by what happens in school. For example, to protect students online and reveal those with safeguarding concerns, many schools use classroom management solutions that employ keywords and neurolinguistics to automatically monitor and flag any concerning online behaviours and actions by students. These alert staff and teachers and allow them to intervene to protect and/or support students at an early stage, in turn instilling parents with more faith that children are protected and the system works.
Now is the time to get it ‘right’
The education sector is currently home to many complex hurdles, particularly when navigating the difficulties of ensuring children with SEND receive effective care and support as soon as, if not before, they need it. Technology and digitisation have the potential to make support available before it’s too late, but too often, the system is slowed down by bureaucratic processes and a lack of understanding of how to effectively cater for the differing needs with limited resources.
Investment in technology as part of the DfE’s ongoing review presents a real chance to build a more collaborative and effective system that is flexible and responsive enough to cater to the ECHP needs of every student. Offering the ‘right’ opportunity to deliver the ‘right’ support, it is essential the Government works with schools, EdTech companies and current providers to understand exactly what role technology can play in a rebooted SEND and AP system.