No matter the requirement or disability, classroom teaching in the SEND sector has always had its own challenges.
But then came the pandemic, the lockdowns, and the emergency hybrid education, which threw the gaps between students’ home lives and their academic progress into sharp relief.
Schools, already reeling from orders to physically close and reopen virtually, were faced with some daunting obstacles; guaranteed access to devices (many were forced to rely on charitable donations), the amount of available support from parents with home-learning, and, that elephant in the room, digital poverty – because what’s the point of a device if you can’t afford the digital juice to run it?
At LEO Academy Trust – a family of six primary schools in South London – Chromebooks have long been standard issue for each pupil, so that was one less thing to worry about. However, it soon became clear that at home, not every kid had the same level of domestic bandwidth.
“If we’re giving pupils online resources to help with their reading, writing, maths etc, but their family doesn’t have good internet access at home then, straightaway, they’re at a disadvantage,” says LEO’s director of innovation and growth, Graham Macaulay.
“We were conscious of that very early into the shutdown and audited households struggling with connection issues and were able to provide assistance, and we’ve taken the decision to continue with that.”
Making positives from negatives
With every pupil at the Trust’s schools on an even digital-keel, Macaulay says staff – and kids – noticed surprising benefits from an unwelcome situation: “A lot of our SEND children actually found the experience quite exciting.”
The rapid change from the classroom format of yore was, initially, a novelty for kids across the board, but children with SEND were able to use the technology to work at a pace that suited them.
“They experienced a new level of independence in their learning,” says Macaulay. “We had children that, actually, were really benefiting from recorded content – they were able to pause the video and go back and watch it again if they didn’t understand it. Having that little extra control of their learning was a good thing.”
These positive notes are music to the ears of Josh Blackburn, COO at online tutoring company and National Tutoring Programme partner TLC LIVE: “SEND students benefit from this as high-quality lessons can now be taught anywhere, anytime. This allows some fantastic opportunities for students to get more out of their education. However, we should be mindful of the isolation that can occur with students not having contact with their peers and the subsequent mental health impact.”
Macaulay agrees, emphasising that there’ll never be a substitute for the education and support provided by teachers. “Moving forward, it’s important to look at what the sector can learn from the lockdowns and hybrid teaching experience. How are we continuing to support those SEND children to maintain that element of independence, whether we’re in the building, or at home or a bit of both?”
“A bit of both” might go some way to tempting schools to look at adopting tech-based hybrid teaching as a new norm, thinks TLC’s Josh Blackburn.
“I believe that [hybrid schooling] has a positive impact, as more students have the possibility to access learning from more locations. Some students have also benefited from the opportunity to engage in education consistently, away from peers – they may have traditionally not been that comfortable engaging in a classroom environment.”
Online learning, he opines, also means high–quality teachers can deliver lessons to other locations where there is less SEND support available.
“It’s worth noting that both schools and special schools have been using us to deliver SEND tutoring via the NTP – in fact, around 9% of the 10,500 we tutored under NTP last year were SEND students. Schools should ask for previous examples of SEND support provided, examples of the types of materials used for tuition, and how much academic progress SEND pupils have traditionally made with the tutoring partner.”
Sixteen and a half per cent of Basingstoke College of Technology’s (BCoT) 16–19-year-old student body have SEND requirements across a broad spectrum, including Asperger’s syndrome, visual impairment, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, and disability affecting mobility.
Sky Caves, senior learning technologist at BCoT, says that, by and large, the college was ready for the transition to online learning come the first lockdown: “But it didn’t come without challenges – digital overload, time pressures and skill level to name a few.”
Stick with what you know
Continuity and familiarity with the chosen tech were key for the SEND students at BCoT. Remote lessons were run via Google Meet and Classroom, and the emphasis was on keeping to pre-pandemic day-to-day timetables.
“We were able to maintain a sense of routine for our learners in what was a very uncertain and chaotic time,” says Caves. “It allowed us to have as normal as possible ‘contact’ with students, which from a safeguarding point of view was really important.”
Other provisions offered by the college such as counselling continued: “Our learner support assistants demonstrated particular flexibility in their ways of working to support our learners’ needs, whether it was Meet calls, phone calls, or instant messaging via Google Chat.”
Michelle Catterson, executive headteacher at specialist dyslexic school for children Moon Hall School, and vice–chair of board at the British Dyslexia Association, feels that the shift to tech-aided home learning was just as eye opening for parents: “Parents had a greater opportunity to see first-hand how much their child might be struggling and how far ahead their peers were compared to them.”
The knock on, she continued, is that parents with dyslexic children are looking to find schools and assistive technologies that will provide their kids with a level playing field so that they can reach their full academic potential.
Q&A with Rick Bell, head of education at Texthelp who developed Read&Write, software that’s proved popular with SEND and mainstream students and teachers alike
What do educators currently want/need to support SEND students in 2022?
Digital learning tools offer educators a way to enhance the learning environment for all students, making classrooms more inclusive and benefiting SEND students.
In practice this could be seen where tools like Read&Write actively support students with hidden disabilities, such as dyslexia, autism and ADHD. Read&Write allows students to self-identify what tools support them best, empowering different learners to maintain focus and build confidence.
What pieces of assistive technology are most useful? How can people get involved to help?
In every classroom, there will be children who learn in different ways and with contrasting educational needs. Tools aiming to enhance inclusive learning need to be designed to engage students, whilst also offering extra support and features that encourage all learners to stay motivated.
The earlier children use new technologies, the more familiar they are with them, and the more comfortable they are likely to be navigating different features and functions. It’s time we ensure that all students have access to technology, whether it be in their classrooms or at home.
How can educators and developers work to boost SEND support this year?
These are challenging times for both teachers and students as schools continue to plan for hybrid learning strategies to ensure provision is in place for wherever students are learning. We must ensure that our SEND students are not disadvantaged and don’t face barriers to education. Accessibility for these students will ensure accessibility and equity of access for all students.
Edtech’s big winners
Google’s Teams and Classroom were hugely popular go-to virtual aids to physical learning across the sectors – largely because they were already so well established. But other tech, either specially designed for SEND requirements or easily adapted/improvised with, also proved invaluable during the months of home school.
A number of schools surveyed cited TextHelp’s Read & Write, a literacy support tool that’s proved popular across the ability spectrum.
“It’s very intuitive” says LEO’s Macaulay, “with a variety of tools for teachers and pupils. For example, if a child’s got a book they’re struggling to read, they can just press play and it will read it to them. Or if there’s a word they don’t know, they can double click on it for a definition and a picture of the word in context.”
For Moon Hall School, the over and above champion has been the OrCam Read. Scan this nifty bit of tech – not much larger than a standard pen but with capacities worthy of Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver – over any printed surface or digital screen, and it will read back the results to the student. It is specifically developed to empower students with reading challenges, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, and mild or moderate vision impairment.
Headteacher Michelle Catterson is clearly delighted the school took a punt on the tech: “The OrCam Read is fantastic. When students are using it, it puts them all on a level playing field. So, no matter what their reading ability, they can all access their educational resources in lessons.
“One of my targets for the pupils is that they are as independent as possible and a key to that independence is being able to access assistive technology. If they don’t have access, or are not confident using it, then they are reliant on an adult – something our older pupils, especially, do not feel comfortable with.”
Because it’s not connected to the internet, OrCam meets JCQ examination guidance. A positive knock–on from that is it enforces that vital sense of independence which students, especially teens, desire.
“If students didn’t have access to technology to help them in their exams, they would be very much reliant upon another adult, a reader or a scribe to help them.”
Using the reading tech is “one less stress for them”, says Catterson. “They don’t have to think about having to communicate to another person what it is that they want to submit for the exam answer.”
As we move into 2022, what do educators want and need to support SEND students? And how do developers and tech companies aim to deliver?
Helen Key, Basingstoke College of Technology’s transition manager, wants to see more resources that can subtly support SEND learners: “Some of our students do not want it to be obvious that they need help or have additional needs, which is understandable.
“Currently, the ways of testing for exam access arrangements are still face to face. We need effective online tools to make assessment more flexible and supportive for students.”
LEO Academy Trust, says Graham Macauley, will continue with a try-before-they-buy policy when it comes to exploring new tech. They rarely decide to invest until a focus group of pupils have put it through its paces. The same kids are also invited to grill the developers over Zoom. The children really enjoy the responsibility, and the feedback pays dividends.
“We have a group of ‘digital leaders’ – children in our schools who are particularly passionate around use of technology. We’re entirely open and transparent with them. We say, ‘we’re thinking about taking this new tool on, we want it to help you learn independently, or to help spelling, but what do you think?’”
Ultimately, says TLC’s Josh Blackburn, the difficulty is the balance between needing the latest edtech innovations and schools having the budget to invest in them.
“Schools will invest if ed tech can support a lot of students, however, some of the best tech for SEND is specific to a need. Although it won’t be long before tech is able to deliver more and more of a child’s education, we are still a long way from it being able to deliver large amounts and this is especially true with SEND, where the personal and emotional connection between a TA or teacher helps to calm and reassure the student.”
Knowing what’s out there in the edtech sphere and having staff who are able to master it is equally important, thinks Stewart Watts, vice–president at global learning technology provider D2L: “The more successful courses allow students to use engaging online resources in a variety of formats, whether audio, film, or interactive quizzes, and all their learning materials should be pooled together online and regularly updated, enabling them to learn from anywhere, at their pace, and on any device – taking into account their specific learning needs.”
Staff then, says Watts, must be educated on the power and impact of online activities, the benefits of blended or online learning, and how they can measure an individual’s progress with the digital tools they have at their disposal.
“Without this crucial element, it’s much more difficult to create an engaging and varied learning experience for all students, of all abilities… We have to ensure that staff can use and apply these technologies effectively throughout their programmes to guarantee that they deliver the best learning experience possible – it should be included in any initial teacher or lecturer training. Without knowing what tools you have available to you and how they can be used, it’s difficult to translate live activities into fully immersive online experiences, especially for SEND students.”
SEND: Into the big wide world
Assistive edtech is equally important for post-16 SEND students, says Sharon Walpole, director of Careermap, the leading search and information website for young people making the leap from school, further and higher education into apprenticeships and the workplace.
Careermap is about to launch a new resource aimed to help make that transition easier: “Technology has played a crucial role during the pandemic for providing remote encounters, which can actually help young people with SEND ease into next steps of face-to-face experiences. [That’s] not going to go away if we ever get back to ‘normal’.”
Joining Careermap’s portfolio of downloadable magazines for parents, graduates, and adult learners is ‘Careermag for Inclusion’.
Launching on 31 January, it’s a co-production with The Careers & Enterprise Company, aimed at encouraging employers to offer meaningful experiences of the workplace for young people with SEND, adds Walpole.
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