Posted by Paul Nisbet on the 18th August, 2023
The ASL Action Plan update was published in November 2022 but inclusive digital learning and assistive technology are hardly mentioned, even though digital learning is becoming more and more prevalent and there is ample evidence that assistive technology can help children with additional support needs access education more independently and successfully. What should be included in the Plan?
Angela Morgan's review of additional support for learning implementation was published in June 2020 and reported:
- A significant disconnect between experience and the stated aspirations of the legislation and policy.
- Challenges in being able to respond to the needs of children and young people with additional support needs. It is dominating the focus and the time of many school leadership teams and specialist service managers, but this is not consistently or sufficiently recognised and understood at senior management and planning levels.
- Not all children, young people and the professionals who are committed to supporting them to flourish, are valued at an equal level within the education system. This is strongly reinforced by the pressures of the focus on Attainment.
- Children and young people and the parents, carers and professionals working closest to them all express frustration at not being listened to by people within the system who they perceive to have the power to act or make changes.
- A range of other strategic and operational factors are influencing, and are symptomatic of, the disconnect between the aspiration and objectives of the legislation and the reality of implementation.
The review echoes many of the findings from previous reports such as the Doran Review (2012); IncludED in the Main?! (2016); the 2017 paper from the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee; and the 2019 report on the experiences of pupils and those that support them.
The Review identifies challenges but also many examples of excellent practice. It notes that:
There are many dedicated, skilled and inspiring professionals who care deeply about children and young people with additional support needs.
the implementation of Additional Support for Learning legislation is over-dependent on committed individuals, is fragmented, inconsistent and is not ensuring that all children and young people who need additional support are being supported to flourish and fulfil their potential.
There are 76 actions in the updated Action Plan across pupils', parents' and carers' engagement, participation and rights, teacher and practitioner professionalism and leadership and improvement but 'technology' is only mentioned once, in the paragraph below:
The Scottish Government continues to fund the Scottish Sensory Centre and CALL Scotland to provide specialist advice and training to school staff on support, including the use of assistive technology, for children and young people with specific communication and sensory needs.
‘Digital learning' does not feature in the Plan at all.
The lack of attention given to digital learning and assistive technology in the ASL Action Plan does not align with other plans and proposals from Scottish Government. In 2021 John Swinney stated:
Just as in my day, the teacher handed out a jotter to all, so in this internet age, we will hand each child the device they need to learn and prosper.
In All Learners Matter - national discussion on education: final report, published by Scottish Government on 31 May 2023, there is extended discussion around Digital Futures which concludes that:
Digital learning must be at the core of Scottish education so that all learners in Scotland have choice, opportunity, and security in their lives, both now and in the future.
The Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment published on 22 June 2023 suggests that Scotland's qualifications and assessment system should:
develop and maintain an appropriate range of approaches to assessment including through digital mechanisms ... with ... a digital profile for all learners which allows them to record personal achievements, identify and plan future learning
The ASL Review itself reports that children and young people said that it is important they experience:
A willingness to adapt teaching methods to children and young people’s learning styles, needs, and varying pace and challenge
using technology can be really helpful here
The lack of attention given to digital learning and assistive technology in the Action Plan is therefore both striking and concerning.
We propose that actions relating to inclusive digital learning and assistive technology should be developed by the Additional Support for Learning Project Board to align the ASL Plan with these other Scottish Government initiatives, and to ensure that children and young people with additional support needs are included and have full access to digital pedagogies and technologies.
Learners in Primary 6 and above in Edinburgh, Falkirk, Glasgow, Scottish Borders are provided with personal iPads, while pupils in Aberdeen, Clackmannanshire, Highland, West Dunbartonshire have their own Chromebooks.
Other local authorities are investing in digital learning but it is clear that access to technology is uneven across the country, and action is needed to address this inequality.
Today’s digital devices have very good accessibility tools and features – pupils with dyslexia, visual impairment can use ‘text-to-speech’ to read text; digital learning materials can be magnified; there are spellcheckers, word prediction and speech-to-text dictation to support literacy; pupils can use tools like Immersive Reader to support their reading and learning; children with English as an Additional Language can use free translation tools to access resources in their first language.
However, in some parts of Scotland pupils do not have access to the full range of accessibility tools on their devices, for a variety of reasons that we won’t explore here.
Some learners also require additional assistive technology – such as a specialist keyboard or mouse, or an accessibility app – to access their iPad, Chromebook or Windows laptop, and again, provision varies across Scotland.
Local authorities have different strategies and policies, but regardless of whether pupils have iPads, Chromebooks or Windows devices, they should all experience a similar level of accessibility. This is not currently the case.
We would like to see the ‘1:1’ pledge and programmes reflected in the Action Plan, accompanied by actions to develop Accessibility Standards or Benchmarks to ensure that digital learning devices and resources are accessible and inclusive.
In 2014, Scottish Government published guidance to help staff ensure that reasonable adjustments are in place: one action would be to update this guidance to reflect current the current digital learning context.
Such actions sit within the Leadership and Improvement section of the Action Plan, perhaps as part of the work in LI 1 to update the Code of Practice,or LI 15, which is considering the outcomes of the national discussion.
Digital learning is a new pedagogy for all of us and pupils, parents and educators need time and support to get the best out of this new technology. We get a lot of calls from teachers and parents who are completely unaware of the tools that are available on pupils’ devices and we are fortunate that our grant funding from Scottish Government enables us to respond to these requests. We regularly visit schools to support learners where we find that pupils and educators do not know about tools that are built into the devices they have right in front of them.
Education Scotland published a draft Teacher Digital Literacy Framework in December 2022 which:
outlines the digital literacy skills, knowledge and understanding a teacher requires to deliver high-quality learning experiences for all children and young people
and this includes the ability to
assess the needs of all learners and to identify, evaluate, select and use digital tools and possibly assistive technology to support these
This won’t happen by accident. There should be actions around Teacher and practitioner professionalism in the Plan to help educators develop these skills: for example, IDL and AT should feature in professional learning programmes and resources for: Pupil Support Staff Professional Learning Framework (TP 3); Additional Support Assistants (TP 6); teachers (TP 7); newly-qualified teachers (TP 8), the GTCS Professional Standards (TP 9); student teacher training (TP 10); accessing national centres of expertise such a CALL (TP 11); ASL specialist teachers (TP 13); and to address the needs of children and young people with speech, language and communication needs.
CALL Scotland does offer a wide range of professional learning from our free weekly webinars, through short courses, our online Learning Modules, our 5 week Technology and Dyslexia and Reading and Writing for Complex Needs courses and more intensive 10 week Technology for ASN course and our annual ASL and Technology conference.
Some learners with more complex additional support needs cannot access the standard mainstream devices that are provided in class. For example, they might require the iPad to be mounted on their wheelchair; or they need switches or eye-gaze to control the technology; or a bespoke, dedicated voice output communication aid. Provision of more specialised assistive technology requires specialised knowledge and expertise and this is not consistently available across Scotland.
Here in CALL Scotland we provide assessment, support and training for pupils and staff in 21 out of the 32 local authorities, but our involvement is generally quite minimal – 10 or 20 days of support per year in most authorities.
To achieve equity we propose an Assistive Technology Pathway, similar to the Scottish Government's Augmentative and Alternative Communication pathway. This would describe the services that pupils who require assistive technology should experience in Scotland. The Pathway should address provision at universal, targeted and specialist levels and bring together local and national assistive technology services to ensure that all learners can benefit from an equal high level of provision.
This work would perhaps sit best within LI 1 of the Action Plan that is refreshing the Code of Practice.
Digital learning is now part of Scottish education. It must be inclusive, and learners with more complex needs who require specialist assistive technology must have access to the right technology and support. This should be reflected in the ASL Action Plan.
Assistive Technology for learners with physical challenges