Equal access to learning is essential for children with special educational needs and disabilities to thrive. Digital tools and techniques can provide much-needed support and social interaction for pupils and their families
Information overload, physical and technological hurdles, loss of specialist support and social interaction: remote learning has been a challenge for many children. But for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), the coronavirus pandemic has spotlighted the critical need for equal access to learning.
Around one in four pupils at special schools and colleges have been at home throughout the pandemic, with a similar proportion of those with education, health and care plans across all state schools unable to attend.
“The main challenge is that while we might all be in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat,” says Zoe Mather, education officer at the National Association for Special Educational Needs.
With formal shielding measures for the clinically extremely vulnerable in place until at least March 31, there is a continued need for digital learning even as schools return. At least 15.4 per cent of pupils in England have special educational needs, according to government data, and “there is no one size fits all”, says Mather. Each child’s needs are unique, as are provision and access to technology across the country. A child with autism spectrum disorder, for example, has different needs from one with hearing or visual impairment, dyslexia, developmental language disorder or Down’s syndrome.
The importance of considering pupils’ needs first and their diagnoses second is highlighted by the Chartered College of Teaching. Its report on distance learning approaches during the pandemic found strategies supporting pupils with SEND by making content more accessible are likely to benefit all students.
These include close collaboration with families of pupils with SEND, but also specific adaptations such as captioning and visual aids, making content easy to edit and wearing plain clothing in live and recorded online lessons.
Steep learning curve
After a year of digital learning becoming a daily reality for teachers, pupils and family members, the learning curve has been steep. Alistair Crawford, SEND deputy regional lead for the North, is part of a specialist team developing hundreds of dedicated SEND-focused educational videos and resources for Oak National Academy, set up at the start of the pandemic to support remote learning.
“We had the chance to have a wider conversation around the curriculum we had never had on that scale in the specialist sector,” he explains. “When we first started, we were trying to emulate children’s TV presenters, but quickly realised it was going to be a family member such as a parent or sibling working alongside, so had to adapt the tone.”
While individual support is essential for SEND pupils, it was important to work out what would best fit the needs of so many different children through a virtual offer. Oak’s 10,000 free lessons for use by teachers or families were developed with closed captions on all videos and British sign language-interpreted English and maths lessons for younger children.
The resources also offer visual support and Makaton signs, full transcripts available for all lessons and considerations of fonts and colours used. There are no references to a particular year group on content as it is “really important we don’t alienate any pupils with the stigma of age grouping”, says Crawford.
Desire for continued educational attainment versus speech and language development, social skills and physical development has been a challenge for many schools working with SEND pupils. At St Martin’s School, a specialist secondary in Derby for young people aged 11 to 19 with additional needs, up to 50 per cent of pupils have been learning remotely.
Joining live English and maths lessons in the morning, pupils were encouraged to meet up online socially at lunchtimes, playing games with their peers, before taking part in wellbeing, personal, social, health and economic education, and social development lessons later in the day. “The social part was really important to us,” says headteacher Debbie Gerring.
Changes have also included moving careers days and jobs fairs online, with virtual tours and workshops, improving inclusivity for pupils who wouldn’t previously have been able to take part.
“There have been silver linings for us as we can open up that access,” says Gerring. “And for those with anxiety or pupils with high-functioning autism, this way of learning has been fantastic for them.”
While the challenges of learning remotely have been considerable, some of the silver linings point to exciting possibilities for continued learning even when class bubbles have to isolate or individual children need hospital stays.
Patchwork of tech access
A mixed patchwork of technology resources across the country meant the first challenge for some schools was getting equipment for interactive learning. For Karen Revill, who teaches at Middlesbrough-based Beverley School for children with autism, once teachers had overcome the challenges of access to webcams, laptops and the internet, the “digital learning was wrapped up in the ethos of connectivity”.
“Making sure the families and students didn’t feel isolated made such a difference to their wellbeing,” she explains.
Timetabled lessons for some students, virtual tours of colleges for those continuing their education, meet-and-greet sessions with a new tutor supporting maths GCSE and even a school YouTube channel all helped pupils remain connected to the learning routine. “It has felt like the most powerful thing to retain that sense of learning community,” adds Revill.
Oasis Academy Warndon principal Suzanne Owen agrees investing in technology and training throughout lockdowns means teachers are now ready to continue the online learning journey in the future. Around 20 per cent of pupils at the school in Worcester have special educational needs and disabilities so ensuring inclusivity across all teaching is crucial, says Owen.
The Oasis Horizons project provided each pupil with an iPad in January, which means every child can take part in daily live lessons and asynchronous recorded sessions. Children with additional needs also got support through apps such as Nessy and Dynamo Maths, as well as a chance to use an immersive reader to read out text.
Live one-to-one video calls enable pupils to benefit from emotional and social support too.
“Everybody’s situation is different, but it is very much about working with parents and carers,” she adds.
Lessons learnt from the pandemic and a more flexible learning approach could change the prospects for children with SEND longer term, believes Cristina Bowman, who runs training and events organisation Diff-Ability for children with Down’s syndrome. Her four-year-old son Max was among a group who fundraised to create a series of bespoke learning resources specifically for children with Down’s, which launched at the end of 2020.
The Teach Me Too project aims to plug the gap in specialist intervention by delivering important cognitive and communication skills to a generation of early learners. She says flexible working hours and access to online working for pupils whose “pain means they cannot get dressed or their anxiety means they cannot walk out of the house that day will benefit many children”.
Catalyst for change
The pandemic has forced change upon many schools, pupils and their families, with mixed consequences for many. But pushing a new way of approaching learning into the spotlight is a catalyst for change, argues Lynn McCann, specialist teacher and founder of Reachout ASC autism support service and training for mainstream schools.
“I would love to see we assess how tech and online learning could be used to develop blended learning for some, if not all, children going forward,” she says. “Clear instructions, chunked steps through the learning and clear feedback that shares what they have done well could be a real option for students who struggle with the school environment.
“Children with SEND should not be an afterthought, but at the heart of our curriculum planning and delivery whether through traditional or technology-based teaching.”