Children and Families Minister Vicky Ford image

Children and Families Minister Vicky Ford has unveiled new research, which explores how transformative assistive technology can help to bridge the gap between education and employment for young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

According to the UK Government, pupils with SEND have benefited from “life-changing” assistive technology throughout the pandemic, helping to improve their communication, learning and overall independence.

Speaking at the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Assistive Technology on 24 November, Minister Ford announced new research has been published, aimed at helping to bridge the gap between education and employment for young people with SEND.

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The rapid assessment review brings together a body of research on assistive technology for the first time, helping schools and colleges better understand how to harness the benefits of existing tools and approaches to raise the outcomes of pupils with SEND.

Minister Ford praised schools, colleges and the technology sector for their response to the ‘historic challenges’ during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for vulnerable students with the most complex needs, but urged companies to make sure all their products and practices are fully inclusive.

Delivering the keynote speech at the APPG, Minister Ford said: “Assistive technology can be life-changing and for many it is vital to communication, learning and overall independence.

“In recent months, the importance of Assistive Technology has been demonstrated like never before. The essential collaboration provided by groups such as this APPG is vital to ensure that we make policy which is informed by as much research and evidence as possible.

“Our review will give schools and colleges a helping hand by providing greater transparency in what tools and interventions can improve outcomes of SEND students and bridge the gap from education into employment. It will also support 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. This will lead to real, meaningful differences in the quality of education for children and young people.

“This is key, because we need to be clear: accessibility should never be an add on, it should be the norm.”

It follows Minister Ford’s letter to Google and Microsoft, sent jointly with Minister of State for Digital and Culture Caroline Dinenage earlier this month, calling on them to improve the accessibility of their products by including subtitles as a default setting, aiding teachers delivering education remotely, and by ensuring their comment functions are easy to read and adaptable for those with visual impairments.

She issued a warning to the sector that too often the effective use of technology in education is ‘hindered by poor broadband and connectivity’ or staff capability, or lack of understanding from parents.

The UK Government says that the global pandemic has, unfortunately, highlighted the digital divide that exists between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. To help tackle these barriers, the government has introduced a £195 million package of support for remote learning and online social care.

This has helped provide over 220,000 laptops and tablets and 50,000 4G routers to disadvantaged and vulnerable children during the summer term. It has also funded an additional 340,000 devices to schools this term to help support these children where face-to-face education has been disrupted.

Additionally, the £195 million fund has seen £37 million invested in the Family Fund to help low-income families requiring specialist assistive technology for their children, of which £10 million is to provide home learning support fund for children with SEND, launched earlier this year.

The government has also expanded its Demonstrator Programme – a peer support network supporting schools and college to improve their use of technology, including how it can remote education strategies.

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