Special World spoke to Project Co-ordinator Roger Blamire about the legacy and future of SENnet – a European Commission funded project on the use of technology to improve access to learning for children with special educational needsIn his office in Brussels Roger Blamire is putting the finishing touches to a report on SENnet for the European Commission. The three-year project, whose funding finished in November, has the ambitious goal of connecting, informing and supporting those using technology to improve access to learning for young people with special educational needs (SEN).
As the funding comes to an end it’s Blamire’s task as Project Coordinator to document its achievements and suggest possible next steps. SENnet is one of a number of projects that have their roots in European SchoolNet, a not-for-profit network of 31 European Ministries of Education, established in 1997 to promote innovation and the use of technology in classrooms.
‘European SchoolNet’s steering group set up a working group on special needs in 2009-10 because it felt it was an important issue that had been overlooked in the rush to innovate and spread the use of technology in mainstream classrooms,’
Blamire says. ‘That working group met a couple of times, but obviously without funding and time it could only do so much. So we applied for funding from the European Commission to create a network and we were successful in that.’
Blamire says European funding for projects on inclusion is important if the community is to meet the needs of the 15-20 per cent of its student population with SEN – a significant part of its future workforce. There is also the long-standing commitment to inclusion embodied in UNESCO’s 1994 Salamanca Statement and subsequent legislation, which has prompted a move away from special schools in many European countries as governments seek to meet the needs of more students with SEN in mainstream settings.
One of SENnet’s aims is to equip teachers and classroom assistants in mainstream schools with the knowledge and support needed to meet this influx. As with similar projects, European SchoolNet invited its member states to take part or to nominate an organisation in their place. The result was a group of eight organisations chosen to reflect the diverse educational challenges students with SEN face across Europe. The group is headed up by European SchoolNet and includes representative organisations from Portugal, Austria, Italy, Turkey, Estonia, Denmark and Belgium.
With a modest budget – each partner received about €30,000 annually – they set about their work.
SENnet drew up a series of seven work packages and it is the outcomes of these that Blamire’s report aims to summarise. They include raising awareness of accessibility and inclusion issues, research, building a network of policy-makers and teachers, developing support materials for teachers and establishing a resource database.
The tangible assets generated by this work are considerable and freely available via SENnet’s website. Highlights include 22 video case studies; a series of thematic and annual reports focusing on innovation; over 600 resources in the SENnet Collection, which forms part of the Learning Resource Exchange (LRE); and a set of teacher education modules.
Blamire says one of the things SENnet hopes to do in the future is to highlight a group four or five useful resources from the SENnet Collection each month or so that are thematically linked and therefore more immediately relevant to those searching for materials on specific topics. Less tangible, but no less important, is the increased awareness SENnet has generated and the networks it has built over three years.
‘My impression of special needs internationally is that it is quite fragmented and that there’s not much going on cross-border even though the problems are the same,’ Blamire says. ‘So this small amount of money has helped open a lot of doors, which would haven’t happened without European funding.’
While the emphasis has been on developing links between the eight partners’ countries, including peer learning visits to schools and organisations, SENnet has also drawn in practitioners from other countries through its website, Facebook group and a series of workshops and seminars. These have provided a platform for some of the innovative practices taking place in Europe, some pioneered by the parents of children with SEN.
‘In our workshops over the three years we have provided a platform for small businesses, because there are quite a few start-ups in special needs,’
Blamire says. One example is the work of another Special World Contributor Marco Iannacone of EdiTouch, who presented at a recent seminar on the use of tablets with children with SEN.
Sustaining and expanding this network is now one of the project’s principal aims.
‘The main route now is to grow our Facebook group, which is pretty active and now has 200+ members,’
Blamire says. ‘This has no barriers to entry and people use Facebook anyway. It is an excellent way of democratically involving people and sharing information, photos, images and ideas in an informal way.
People write in their own language so people access what they can and what interests them. ’Blamire stresses that with SENnet’s funding at an end its future plans need to be realistic. He says he suspects a lot of partners are already giving their own time ‘because of their commitment to doing something for special needs’.
Alongside the Facebook page SENnet plans to provide regular updates to its website and keep a monitoring eye on research and new products. Hopefully in time new project opportunities will emerge. SENnet’s member countries have also established their own networks and these will play an important part in carrying on its work. ‘There are always language problems in Europe, which can be under-estimated,’ Blamire explains.
‘Although decisionmakers tend to speak English and move freely across countries it’s not true of teachers, particularly primary school teachers, and that has to be accepted. European SchoolNet is currently carrying out a survey of IT co-ordinators in Europe and they are saying the same sort of thing: they would join a network much more willingly if it was in their language rather than another language. It’s the same with special needs and we have to accept that. National networks may well be more dynamic than an international one.’
Another idea for sustaining SENnet’s work is to appoint its own ambassadors. ‘It’s an idea that has gained traction,’ Blamire says. ‘In eTwinning, for example, which is the biggest schools projects in Europe – over 130,000 schools and millions of students – countries have eTwinning ambassadors. The idea is to have somebody locally, on the ground who knows about these initiatives and can be champions for them and mediators for teachers.
So we suggested to SENnet that the same could apply. To work effectively this person would need to be full time, would need a high profile and would need a marketing budget so it isn’t something that will happen overnight.’
So where, I ask, does he hope things will be in three years’ time. Blamire is candid about the enormity of the task inclusion champions face. ’Mindsets are quite difficult to change. You seem to have won a battle and at the next meeting there’s no mention of inclusion and so on. You are trying to change a default setting, move a supertanker a few degrees.
‘It’s very hard to make changes in a Continent of more than 24 languages and six million teachers in schools but I would like some simple steps such as statements of inclusivity on publicly funded websites and built in to the design of materials the notion of Universal Design for Learning and multiple modes of access. ‘This week I am speaking at a conference in Brussels on the use of video. It’s so simple these days to add captions of transcripts. Why isn’t it automatically done or why isn’t it obligatory?
Why doesn’t any organisation that claims to be inclusive not do this? It sounds like a small battle but if we could make some headway on that in three years’ time I think it would make a difference.’ Meanwhile there is the Commission report to complete and a dissemination brochure to write. Published in five languages it will be downloadable from SENnet’s website. How would he sum up its message?
‘One of the things we found in SENnet is that technology has a transformative effect in a way that perhaps it doesn’t in mainstream. It does things for many students that completely change their lives and becomes totally essential. As educators and citizens we need to make sure that happens for everyone that needs it.’