Can edtech help address the deepening special educational needs crisis in our schools?

The current schooling environment for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is creeping up the news agenda. A report in April by thinktank IPPR North identified funding cuts for SEND children of 17% across England since 2015, and while government funding through the “high needs block” increased by 11% across England during that time, demand outstripped it, increasing by 35%.

Families and educators see a genuine crisis at hand. 1,000 councillors have recently written to the education secretary urging the government to end spending cuts and increase SEND funding, parents and teachers in 28 towns and cities across the country marched in protest against the cuts in May, and families have now taken the government to court in a landmark legal fight. Clearly, solutions are urgently needed. With last month’s Learning Disability Week helping to raise awareness of SEND issues even further, it is a great time to consider how edtech can help those most in need.

There are direct consequences of not rising to the challenge of assisting those with SEND. For example, these children are significantly less likely to progress from a school’s nursery into its reception than their classmates, and cuts and reforms have reduced local authorities’ capacity to take action to understand and address inequalities in early years provision.

An already difficult situation is complicated by the wide variety of conditions listed under SEND: communication and interaction difficulties; cognitive and learning difficulties; visual, hearing and other sensory impairments; as well of a long list of social, emotional and mental health needs. Not only that, special needs can be highly layered, and sometimes even invisible, creating a real challenge for teachers and schools in providing effective help for the diversity of students with disabilities.

There are direct consequences of not rising to the challenge of assisting those with SEND.

The fallout from not dealing with this challenge is profound. The Education Policy Institute had no hesitation in a report last year listing SEND status among prominent factors that have a long-term negative impact on a child’s education and life opportunities, way beyond school into adulthood, including income poverty, and “a lack of social and cultural capital and control over decisions that affect life outcomes.”

According to the latest government data, there are almost 1.3 million SEND children and young people in England alone with 92% of those educated alongside their mainstream peers, so there is plenty of opportunity for the latest technology to democratise the quality of teaching to all in the classroom. Let’s also not forget that the government’s own recently published edtech strategy specifically asks industry, the education sector and academia to “identify the best technology that is proven to help level the playing field for learners with special educational needs and disabilities.”

Against such a challenging backdrop, however, edtech is not the magic bullet to solve all these problems, but it can help. It will never replace teachers, as their intuitive and empathetic connection with students can never be replicated or automated. One of the benefits of this human dimension, particularly for SEND students, is that it facilitates personalisation, with teachers able to spend face time giving the best tutoring and support to individual students in their classes with different needs and abilities. If technology can cut down the time teachers spend marking or reduce their administrative burden in other ways, personalisation is further enabled and supported.

There is plenty of opportunity for the latest technology to democratise the quality of teaching to all in the classroom.

As the government’s edtech strategy itself acknowledges, if implemented and supported properly, technology has the ability “to reduce teacher workload, boost student outcomes and help level the playing field for those with special needs and disabilities.” One of the most encouraging aspects of this Whitehall strategy is how it is actually open to suggestions from the market, whether they are assistive technology developers or education experts.

One of the historic problems that has frustrated me for a long time has been a lack of meaningful dialogue between the tech developers and those on the education coalface who will have to use these tools. Tech and app developers would create products which failed to work or be understood in the classroom, while teachers felt their specifications and requirements were never featured in the design process. This ‘understanding gap’ looks like it could be bridged via the government’s new approach spelled out in the strategy, which promises to bring together teachers and educators with innovative edtech companies to tackle common challenges, as well as to make sure those working in education are well-equipped with the necessary skills and tools to meet the needs of schools, colleges and their pupils. This seems like progress at last.

Many accessibility tools that can help SEND students available today and in development are app-based for easy download onto a Chromebook, iPad or other computing devices. This is an area we should continue to push on, following the US lead, where over 70% classrooms are expected to have an interactive display this year. Whether it’s already existing tech such as tools that read content aloud to those who can’t see it, or who learn better with audio, or new developments in sip-and-puff solutions for students with mobility challenges, the ever expanding world of edtech offers new hope and innovation every day for SEND students in particular, and there is plenty of potential for continued growth and innovation in this market.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital

This article appeared on ET on 6th July 2019

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