Earlier this week, children and families minister Vicky Ford revealed new research aimed at helping to bridge the gap between education and employment for pupils with special education needs and disabilities (SEND).
As the Gov.UK website explains, the rapid assessment review collates a body of research around assistive technology for the very first time. It is hoped that it will help schools and colleges better understand how to maximise the benefits of current tools and approaches to improve outcomes for SEND pupils.
During her speech to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Assistive Technology, the minister praised schools, colleges and the wider technology industry for how they have handled the “historic” challenges brought about by the pandemic. Yet, she urged organisations to ensure that all of their practices and products were fully inclusive.
“Assistive technology can be life-changing and for many, it is vital to communication, learning and overall confidence,” acknowledged the minister. She said the review will not only support schools and colleges, but also assist the technology sector in “embedding accessibility features – such as text to voice tools – as part of their service development, and policymakers to better embed inclusion into their policies and services.”
The minister said that this support will lead to “real, meaningful differences in the quality of education for children and young people,” which she stressed was key – “because we need to be clear: accessibility should never be an add on, it should be the norm.”
Ford’s speech follows a letter sent to Microsoft and Google, calling on the companies to enhance the accessibility of their products by including subtitles as a default setting, which would help teachers deliver remote lessons, and making sure their comment functions are easy to read and are adaptable for people with visual impairments.
She delivered a warning to the industry that the effective use of technology in education “is often hindered by poor broadband and connectivity” or staff capability, or lack of understanding from pupils’ parents.
The pandemic highlighted the digital divide between disadvantaged students and their peers. This is something the government has sought to tackle with a £195m support package for remote learning and online social care.
Measures included providing over 220,000 laptops to disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils during the summer term; working with network providers to offer free data top-ups; and the expansion of the government’s Demonstrator Programme, a peer support network which supports schools and colleges to enhance their use of technology.