Martin Littler marks the loss of one the UK's leading centres of SEN expertise
One of the UK’s most influential and longest serving special needs assessment centres – the Oxford ACE Centre – will close its doors due to cuts in education spending.
The decision was taken at an extraordinary general meeting of trustees last week (March 29) and affects Oxford ACE only (Northern ACE Centre is a separate charity and is not affected). Had the decision to close not been taken cash-flow issues would have forced closure within weeks.
Twelve months ago the Oxford ACE Centre responded to tight public finances by cutting staff and overheads in half – but this has not been enough.
ACE Centre trustee Bill Nimmo said, “Vital services like ours that provide so much support through high levels of expert knowledge and understanding of people’s needs cannot be allowed to close and we ask the Government to urgently review the sustainability of these essential services.
"The ACE Centre Advisory Trust staff and trustees are deeply saddened that the centre is scheduled to close at the end of June 2012. Despite significant efforts to ensure the sustainability and future of our Centre, we are unable to continue to operate in the current financial climate."
The closure came 28 years after the two ACE Centres (originally Aids to Communication in Education) were set up by the Thatcher Government under the Council for Educational Technology (CET) in 1984. They joined the four SEMERCs set up a year earlier. These six centres were to work closely and energetically with local education authorities (LEAs) to ensure that learners with special needs benefited fully from the (very) new technology then available.
ACE Centres focused on learners with severe and complex needs
While the SEMERCs worked across the whole range of special needs through SEN/IT advisory teachers, the ACE Centres focused on those with severe and complex needs normally without speech and able to make only limited voluntary movements or sounds. The ACE Centre did survive the successive MEP, CET, MESU, NCET and Becta quangos and the last of the SEMERCs was sold in 1995. (An interesting history of Oxford ACE Centre is available: http://bit.ly/ACECentre.)
For 28 years both ACE Centres have been leaders in alternative and augmentative communication (AAC). Oxford ACE attracted very substantial charitable funding and funding for research projects. Thousands of children were helped spectacularly by both ACE Centres and there are numerous dramatic (if scary) stories of children completely written off as unreachable who, given the right help and communication aid, have gone on to university education.
Like Claire Malone. “Communication should be a right for every individual,” said her mother, Jenny Malone. Despite battling with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects her speech and motor control, Claire has realised her full potential and is now studying physics at Imperial College London thanks to the provision and support of appropriate technology recommended by the ACE Centre.
Claire, who was first assessed by the ACE Centre in early childhood and continues to be supported by them, has succeeded as a result of a range of communication aids designed to meet her complex needs. In addition to using a specialised joystick to control on-screen software, Claire uses Eyegaze technology, an eye-operated communication and control system to communicate and interact with the world around her. With this, Claire can speak, write, interact with information technology and even control systems in her home or at university.
Some SEN provision moving to health service – ACE input lost
After almost 30 years where the focus on children’s communication needs was focused within education, current government proposals have transferred the responsibility to health with the FAST Report’s “Hub and Spoke” model (http://bit.ly/FASTreport). ACE North’s director, Anna Reeves is also the national communication co-ordinator and the Oxford ACE Centre would have had a major part to play in training staff in whatever new set-up emerged. Sadly this resource is now lost.
My first links with ACE was in 1986 when I became director of Manchester SEMERC and I have been closely associated with both centres for the past 26 years. I have seen at first hand the transformation they have brought to children’s lives with the right equipment, support and advice. The whole field of assistive technology in the UK has benefited from their input, experience and research and they played a major part in the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) ICT training of 7,000 teachers from special schools a decade ago including substantial contributions to the course materials.
One thing ACE did not achieve was to see that every child got the communication device they needed – although this was achieved very successfully for some years under the last Government’s Communication Aids Project (CAP) in which both ACE Centres played the key roles. I have my doubts about the proposed “Hub and Spoke” model but if it does provide every child with a voice this will be a fitting memorial for Oxford ACE. Quite where we now get the expert advice and assessments from is another matter.
Oxford ACE Centre
Oxford Ace Centre on Wikipedia
Martin Littler is a trustee of the ACE Centre Advisory Trust. He chaired the ICTS Syndicate which included the ACE Centres, RNIB, the Downs Syndrome Association and others and provided NOF training to Special Schools. He was the founding chairman of the British Assistive Technology Association and was director of Manchester SEMERC from 1986 to 1996. Martin is currently executive chairman of Inclusive Technology which he founded with friends in 1996.