Why don’t we use more Assistive Technology in Education?

Technology.  It’s great.  It’s huge.  Even at my age (don’t ask) I feel naked if I don’t have my mobile with me.  This technology has fantastic benefits for SEN students and this is called Assistive Technology.  Helping SEND people live their life independently and breaking down barriers. 

How much do we use in schools?  In my experience, not a huge amount. Why not? “Cost and small budgets” I hear you shout at me. I know school budgets are limited, but is it actually all down to cost?  Think about the cost of human support for SEN students – this isn’t cheap. Think about how much schools spend on improving results for students by employing consultants or paying for advice from specialist – again this is isn’t cheap.  Schools are now providing whole year groups with tablets (computer things like iPads) and laptops – not cheap.

So if it isn’t all cost, what is it?

There are two main reasons (apart from cost) in my view.  We are old.  There it is.  People in education are old. In technology terms/youth term we are old.  We are behind the times. I’ve only just got the hang of my new television remote control and we’ve had it six months.  I even get irritated when the supermarket moves things around so learning new technology doesn’t come easily to me. 

Learning new technology is hard.  I remember the days being excited I programmed the BBC microcomputer to play the first line of happy birthday (in the ten minutes I had on it).  Doing stuff like that doesn’t excite me anymore.  It I can’t use it straight away I am not really interested.  And this takes me to the second reason.  In education time is massively limited with many pressures so learning new technology is way down the list.

One of the companies I work for is Scanning Pens Ltd. They make assistive technology to help students turn text into speech.  During this time I’ve heard educators say that they bought one but they haven’t had time to get it out of the box and give to students to use. 

So there we are.  I believecost, techno-phobe and time (and we are old) are the main barriers to Assistive Technology being used more in schools.

So what can we do?  Well cost can be an issue – however, assistive technology comes with high rewards. Independent learning cuts down on the need for TAs/LSAs, less time requiring higher levels of support by the teacher and an evidenced increase in performance surely makes assistive technology cost effective?

So, techno-phobe educators and time limitations. Well give it to the students to investigate andwork out. Ask them to get involved.  Who do we ask if we can’t use technology – I ask my kids! They have the capabilities and the desire.  Also, look on You Tube, there are instructions videos on everything there!

So, go out there, see what’s around. There’s some amazing stuff that will give SEN students an independence for learning that is wonderfully liberating and will increase results.  Independent learning also means less time needed from us so we can go and work out what on earth chatbots and augmented reality are (I googled the next big thing). Me, I’m gonna have lessons in how to put subtitles on my telly.


Access Arrangements, Extra Time – Not always the best thing for a student

Every year there is a discussion in the media about Access Arrangements.  Access Arrangements are intended to break down any barriers to a student demonstrating their knowledge during an exam. To ensure there is a level playing field for all students, that all the exam time is for a student to demonstrate their knowledge, not to have some of that time taken up with a disability.

JCQ regulations say that a student must be disabled within the meaning of the equality act in order to receive an access arrangement. This means they must have a substantial difficulty that drastically affects their day to day life. Not a minor difficulty but a substantial difficulty.

The new story this year was about extra time for access arrangements - the most requested and granted access arrangement for exams.  The reports highlighted that the ratio of students in Independent Schools receiving extra time for their exams was higher (last year) than the ratio of students in state schools. 

I was away working at the time of the release and I always watch BBC breakfast time in the hotel when getting ready (which doesn’t take too much time being naturally beautiful obviously). BBC Breakfast had a gentleman in the studio, representing Independent Schools, and he speculated that the higher proportion was down to Independent Schools having better resources to recognise SEN.  Being an ex-state school SEN person, I nearly stabbed myself in the eye with my mascara at this and I won’t tell you what I said because it would involve lots of stars.  

I understand his job was to demonstrate how great the independent sector is over the state sector, however, his statement is not supported by SEN figures which show a higher percentage of students with SEN in state education.

So, what is the reason? Well, before I give my (obviously brilliant) thoughts, you need to know that the main route to qualify for extra time is that schools have to identify there is a difficulty in processing or expressing information, and have this support with an assessment by a qualified assessor.  On the assessment, the student has to score below 85. I won’t bore you with the long and boring explanation why here.

Normal way of working is supposed to take priority, schools are not allowed to award access arrangements unless they are aware of the students learning difficulties and have to adjust their teaching to accommodate it.

Unfortunately, too many times an access arrangement, particularly extra time is awarded purely on an assessment score, irrelevant of the normal way of working in school.  Here is the major clue as to why I believe independent schools proportionately award more time. Independent school parents are more financially able and more likely to commission a private assessment which the school incorrectly uses to award extra time.

Now, as a parent, I completely understand the desire to get the best for your child.  We are bombarded with pressure that if our child doesn’t achieve certain grades we are failures as parents. With 1 in 10 people estimated as being on the Dyslexic spectrum, parents also want to ensure their child isn’t hindered in anyway.

However, the difficulty has to be substantial. A substantial difficulty that drastically affects their day to day working, so they are disabled under the meaning of the equality act.  As a qualified assessor I know that any assessment is a snapshot of that moment in time and there are many factors that affect that snapshot.  I would get completely different results if I were tested on a Friday afternoon compared to a Monday morning.  There are also confidence intervals to take into account (which I also won’t bore you with). Which is why normal way of working takes precedence.

Ironically extra time may not actually be a suitable access arrangement.  If a student needs longer because they get tired then supervised rest breaks are a much more suitable access arrangement – why do you want to make the exam last longer!

There is also some evidence that extra time can be detrimental and have a negative impact on the result.  An exam has been timed for the student to complete the questions, then check their answers in the allotted time.  If there is too much extra time they start doubting their original answers and changing them.

External Private Assessors do not know what happens in the classroom and all too frequently, don’t even contact the school before conducting assessments.  I have also heard of assessors who will continue testing until they get the hallowed score before 85.

Often schools will also get letters from medical professionals asking for extra time and award it based on this even though there are no signs of difficulty in school.  If there is a medical condition which means the students tired, then again supervised rest breaks are a far more suitable alternative for the student and a lot less stressful.

 The school must take the lead and access arrangements must be for those with substantial difficulties, in order to maintain the integrity of the exam system. And before you instantly ask for or award extra time, consider whether it may actually have a detrimental effect, it’s not always the best thing!