Good intentions for special needs provision in the Government's Home Access scheme quickly soured when providers of the technology for learners discovered - by accident - that they had just a week to come up with suitable assistive technology.
This has left the scheme "mired in muddle and discourtesy", says Martin Littler, chairman of leading SEN company Inclusive Technology, and a member of Becta's Expert Reference Group on Inclusion. The scheme is exected to help around 270,000 learners, a significant percentage of whom may require additional help - possibly as many as 54,000.
Becta, the government agency responsible, had invited bids from its 12 "framework" technology suppliers because it recognised that the scale of the project did not allow for individual assessment of learners. The problem was that none of the framework suppliers are experts in SEN. This left specialist suppliers like Inclusive, Crick and TextHelp, who had not even been notified of the tender, just one week - which included a bank holiday weekend - to get up to speed and find a framework supplier partner.
In a letter to Becta, Martin Littler explained : "Becta’s solution to put literacy tools on every machine was inspired. These tools are likely to meet the needs of 90 per cent of learners with SEN and provide considerable support to many more. Such assessment resources as there are can now be concentrated on learners with severe and complex needs who may require expensive equipment.
"There are a small number of companies who understand, own and supply the appropriate literacy tools. TextHelp, Claro, Crick Software and my company, Inclusive Technology is probably a near complete list. Although we have all been consulted about the programme in the past, none of us has been invited to tender. Indeed none of us were told of the existence of the tender. We have found out about the tendering process, already well advanced, by accident.
'Documents just as well sent to suppliers of wind turbines...'
"Instead, 12 of Becta’s closed list of framework suppliers were sent the tender documents. That none understood what these were is evidenced by the fact that only one of the 12 contacted any of the firms who could supply the resources. These documents might just as well have been sent to suppliers of wind turbines or clean coal technology.
"It is important that learners who face huge extra challenges get the right resources. It is also important that government gets best value for a limited education budget. I can’t see how either is achieved by only allowing those not involved in assistive technology to bid, and by keeping all suppliers who do have relevant technology in the dark. I appreciate that any supplier who did accidentally find out about the tender can lobby one of the 12 on the list to bid on their behalf. I can’t see what this achieves except delay, confusion and inevitable extra cost; these middlemen will need a margin - at the very least to cover legal and insurance risks."
For Inclusive, which already has a close relationship with leading ICT supplier RM, the situation is not difficult, but very challenging as it is for the other suppliers which do not have partners. They had to start from scratch. This left both the hardware suppliers and the assistive technology companies scrambling to get their bids in by lunchtime on Friday (May 29).
Becta, which has been criticised in recent years for an apparent down-grading of its national profile for special needs expertise, has not acknowledged that there is a problem. It has merely restated the reason for the nature of the tender.
A spokesperson said that special needs suppliers supported and welcomed the initiative: “In order to ensure that the Home Access programme can provide learners of all ages with appropriate tools and applications to improve literacy and learner engagement with technology, Becta has began a process to procure basic Assistive Technology applications for inclusion in the standard Home Access package.
"In order to do this within the timescales available and without significant additional cost to the programme Becta is utilising the OGC Software Licensing Framework (framework code RM623), established to provide schools, LAs and public sector bodies with an EU compliant mechanism to procure software applications and associated value added services.
"Software publishers and suppliers within the Assistive Technology community have indicated their support for this procurement and welcome the opportunity to take part. It is important to recognise that all of the AT suppliers and publishers are welcome to contact any of the suppliers on the framework as part of the tender process in order to develop offerings compliant with the requirements of the ITT. Framework suppliers are required to submit their completed responses to the ITT by 13:00 on 29th May."
'We were taken aback at the very least'
What is puzzling observers, however, is why it didn't occur to anyone at Becta to alert the special needs community of suppliers, or, in the event of getting their heated feedback, the failure to acknowledge that there was a problem. Crick Software's John Crick, who had to hurriedly find out about the tender and make his company's arrangements before going on holiday this week, said: "It was a very odd way to proceed, and we are also puzzled by the actual tender requirements. There was very little for primary-aged children; it is very secondary biased. We were taken aback at the very least.
"The principle, however, is a really good one. We applaud it because getting assistive technology on to all the computers is really inclusive, so all kids will benefit fom it and not just those said to have special educational needs."
Specialist suppliers are: