David CameronPM David Cameron on ACE (picture: YouTube)PM David Cameron pledges help for crisis-hit ACE Centre
The impending closure of the Oxford ACE Centre on May 9 is presenting prime minister David Cameron and his Coalition Government with a test of their commitment to the most vulnerable learners in the UK and the use of technology to support their communication needs.

More than 890 people have already signed the government e-petition to save the centre and, in response to a question from Andrew Smith MP, David Cameron acknowledged the pioneering work of the centre and pledged that he would look for ways to help.

 The crisis at the ACE Centre has sparked a campaign by those involved in special needs education, resulting in the government e-petition and a tweeting campaign on Twitter using the hashtag #SaveACE. The centre has helped more than 5,000 people with communication problems, many of them severe, since it opened in 1984. It will close at the end of June unless help is forthcoming.

'The closure must be stopped' says BATA

Bill Nimmo, chair of the ACE trustees, said: "The next trustees meeting is on May 9 and the trustees hope that a positive response from government will enable them to keep the centre open."

BATA (the British Assistive Technology Association) has called on the Government to take action to save the centre which it describes as a "vital research and support facility for people who need technology to help them communicate". BATA executive director Barbara Phillips said: "Without the sort of expertise and on-going support that ACE Oxford offers, so many children and adults are going to live unnecessarily impoverished lives and be cut off from the communication, learning and working the rest of us take so much for granted.

"This closure must be stopped. The money needed to prevent it is small in comparison to the long-term damage the end of ACE Oxford would mean. And once we lose all that knowledge and experience, it will take long years to get it back once the recession is over."

Andrew Smith MPAndrew Smith MPAndrew Smith MP for Oxford East, raised the issue of the ACE Centre at question time in the House of Commons last week. He asked: "Does the prime minister agree that the specialist ace centre in Oxford, currently facing closure, does outstanding work unlocking the isolation of children with acute communication difficulties? Given the pressure charities are under will the PM step in and pull together some bridging finance so that this outstanding centre can continue helping the children and young people who need it so much?"

PM David Cameron agreed that he did know the centre and had visited it in the past. He said he was "very happy" to look with him, "as a fellow Oxfordshire MP", to see what can be done "to help the centre and the very good work it does, particularly for disabled children".

The crisis has also brought a passionate appeal from one of the people at the former National Council For Educational Technology, who was responsible for running the Oxford ACE Centre, Professor Peter Fowler. He warned that societies are judged by how they treat their most vulnerable citizens, and said that if the ACE Centre was allowed to close "something in this country goes down with it" (see "Why closing the Oxford ACE Centre will shame us all").

'Question time' YouTube video (Andrew Davies question around 18 minutes in)

Chair of ACE trustees Bill Nimmo added, “Andrew Smith MP has shown his commitment to the centre by asking a question at Prime Minister's Questions Time and the trustees hope that the prime minister will now lead the way in finding funding to keep the Oxford ACE centre going until 2013 when we hope the hub-and-spoke model proposed by the government’s communication champion, Jean Gross, will be fully funded.

'The initial assessment my son had at the ACE centre was revolutionary'

“The centre works with people with the most difficult communication problems and it is essential that it can play a unique and valuable part in the hub-and-spoke model to ensure that these people are supported. It's not about the cost, it's not about the numbers; it’s about the impact as shown by this story recently emailed to me by a parent:

“The initial assessment my son had at the ACE centre was revolutionary. There is no doubt that without the input from the highly trained staff his speech would have been much slower in it's development, if indeed he had had the confidence to talk at all.

"Now, at almost 20, my son can 'talk' for England and his communication including writing skills has developed beyond everyone's wildest dreams. In fact he is the only one of 200 sufferers with this rare syndrome in the world who has developed the ability to speak and write, and without doubt the ACE Centre had a very large part to play in making that happen.”

Martin Littler, executive chairman of leading SEN company Inclusive Technology and a trustee of the ACE Centre Advisory Trust, first raised the issue of the closure of the ACE centre on this website (see "Cutbacks hit SEN – ACE centre to close"). Commenting on the development of the campaign, he said: “The Oxford ACE Centre has always had a much bigger footprint than its small band of dedicated therapists and teachers would lead you to expect. The fact that a Labour MP could ask a question in the House and get such a positive response from the PM and Number 10, that Professor Peter Fowler is moved to speak out after so many years of retirement, that so many #SaveACE tweets have gone viral on Twitter gives me hope that something can be done. Something must be done.”

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