John Galloway explores the special needs technology void left by the closure of Becta
The bonfire of the quangoes' was lit a little over a year ago, and among the first on the pyre was Becta, the last whisp of which finally drifted away in March.
The closure, and what imprint might remain, were debated with widely varying views – from those who volunteered to strike the match, to those with buckets and hoses at the ready. In the small but highly dedicated field of ICT and special educational needs however, there was almost universal disappointment that Becta's small but expert team was going.
It had, explained Chris Stevens, the former head of the group, two functions: "One was inward looking to the organisation and one was outward looking to teachers, advisers, government, those sort of people." He believes there were varying degrees of success, in part because the team of four "had to keep our finger on the pulse of all the activity that was going on". And they also had to "try and ensure that every initiative and project considered special education needs".
Becta's audience was 'teachers working with pupils'
When this team was first set up – within Becta's predecessor the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) – Stevens saw the main audience as "teachers working with pupils", but that these could be rather solitary people. "I saw the special needs teacher, whether they were in a special school or in a mainstream school, as often being fairly isolated because – particularly in mainstream schools – your senco [special needs co-ordinator] might be the only teacher who is given that job. Special schools were fairly small and there were fewer in an authority, they could get together a lot less."
Which led him to build mechanisms to bring together all members of the community: "We listened to disability organisations, industry. We forged relationships with all those different sectors and then tried to build up initiatives that we believed would be useful to them."
One of the things that helped to forge this community was the nature of the suppliers. "The great thing about the industry of assistive technology is that most of the companies are fairly small and most of the companies obviously want to make profit but they are also very concious of the market they serve and and are committed to that market as well."
It was also helped by their shared interests, "I believed technology was a medium that could create that sort of joined up environment that nothing else could," Stevens says.
Despite the success of initiatives such as the SENCO Forum, and SENIT (online forums that escaped the flames and are now hosted by the Department for Education) and the Communication Aids Project, he also thinks that the group became less effective as the role of Becta changed to a much more "policy and strategy type of organisation".
Martin Littler is boss of Inclusive Technology, one of the larger suppliers, and he chairs the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA), an industry group. He confirms the importance of this national SEN team but sheds no tears for Becta: "The Becta SEN team had great difficulty and frustration in escaping the risk-averse bureaucratic glue-pot which BECTa became and which, rightly, doomed the organisation to closure." As former Becta employee Sal McKeown, now a successful freelance writer, sees it, "The work was a shadow of what it was in earlier years, so I can't regret the closure."
However, the good work of the SEN team is still highly appreciated across the board. In schools. "They supported and developed the teaching and delivery of ICT through hosting the SEN forums [SENIT and SLD], enabling the sharing of ideas, problems, new hardware and software-and the regular face to face meetings," says Richard Walter, an ICT support teacher at The Vale Special School in Haringey, North London.
'They ensured that special education had an equal platform with other sectors'
It's a point that is reinforced by Sean O'Sullivan, award-winning headteacher of Frank Wise School in Banbury. He says, "They ensured that the special education sector itself, despite its enormous diversity, did at least share an equal platform with other sectors."
The Becta SEN team also had an impact on the work of local authority advisory staff, such as those at CENMAC which works across inner London. The head of the service, Trish Davidson, feels that the Becta team provided "the links between all the people working out in LAs and in schools". They "helped to keep practitioners abreast of legislation" and "were genuinely interested in the work".
The impact of bringing all stakeholders together was felt by the industry too. Ray Barker, director of trade association BESA, says, "I think one of its greatest contributions was in the creation of a true ‘community’ – a group of educators concerned with SEN who shared good practice and resources and discussed the big issues."
Of course that community has not completely disappeared, as the forums continue, but other aspects of the work have gone. "The representation of SEN at a national govermental level has probably been weakened by the disbanding of the team," says Richard Walters, "especially the very important role in reminding govermental departments of the existence of young people and adults with special educational needs when planning their initiatives."
'A need for some kind of unit within the DfE to represent SEN in all its forms'
Those in the industry are concerned too. BATA's Martin Littler thinks it would be useful "having someone in or near government with knowledge of how brilliantly technology can help learners with special needs". Jonathan Thompson, former chair of BESA's SEN group agrees: "There is a need for some kind of unit within the DfE to represent SEN in all its forms because there are a lot of NGOs and other organisations, but there is no central co-ordinating body."
It is a situation Chris Stevens sees as problematic, too. "What the department is not getting is a broad view of the various disabilities and the danger is you go down one road or another," he says. "I don't know who it would be now that would say, starting from the point of view of technology and special needs, 'These are the sort of things you ought to be thinking about.'"
Lorraine Petersen, head of the National Association of Special Education Needs (NASEN) sees other problems, identifying support for procurement as a developing issue. "I have a real concern that with the demise of the Becta team, plus reductions in LA personnel, schools will be struggling to find good, impartial ICT advice in the future. With the introduction of the Disability Duty later this year, requiring schools to be responsible for providing auxiliary aids for all those who need them, where will they get the expertise needed to support them in the purchase of these items, some at a very high cost?"
'Most LAs too small to mount a credible service'
There are various suggestions for solutions. Martin Littler would like to see "a network of regional assistive technology centres – most LAs are just too small to mount a credible service". And Sean O'Sullivan a "a smaller, agile grouping of people who could devote their time to being closer to practice in schools and simply share interesting examples of good or thought-provoking work". In these straitened times however, the issue of cost is ever present. "It needs someone to manage the community – and so someone would have to pay," warns Ray Barker.
There is, then, a real feeling that something valuable has been lost. That good quality advice and support is no longer readily available to all those responsible for the education of some of the most vulnerable children in our schools, and that includes teachers, advisers, civil servants and ministers.
It is not a sentimental view, though. "I don't think it needs to be a Becta that does it," Chris Stevens reflects. "All it needs to be is an understanding that these questions will be asked and there need to be people there who can answer them in a broad and balanced way."
John Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant. He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning and runs his own blog.