Sally McKeown talks to an innovator who will help her learners by any means necessary
Carol AllenCarol Allen: be prepared to 'get your hands dirty'Not just an early adopter of technology, Carol Allen, advisory teacher for ICT and special needs in North Tyneside has been an ’early adapter’ of every form of technology, ensuring it meets the needs of children with disabilities and learning difficulties. She has used Nintendo handhelds to make speech therapy more fun and created sensory playkits from Tesco ‘£1 specials’. "Take what’s there and bend it," she says.

Well known as a judge of special needs awards, her blend of innovation and enthusiasm has also made her popular with schools, local authorities and the software industry. Now much of her work is a key consultant in special needs provision for capital projects like Building Schools for the Future.

“It’s strange to think that I got into special needs by avoiding PE!” she says. “As a sixth former, the only alternative was what they called ‘Good Works’, and I went once a week to work in a special care unit at Ashleigh School in North Shields. The headteacher, Mrs Hall, was very progressive because she talked about ‘challenging and raising expectations’ at a time when many people still felt that children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) could not be educated. It felt like coming home and I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

After several years as a mainstream English teacher, Carol returned to Ashleigh and started to build her special needs classroom experience, before adding a qualification in visual impairment to her portfolio. At this time, computers began to appear in the classroom and she was quick to exploit the early BBCs with their suite of popular primary programs such as Blob.

However, Carol was always looking for ways to adapt mainstream solutions for her learners and was amazed by the potential of the first Window Box machines from RM. It was then she started to think how computers designed for the mainstream could be used with pupils who had both learning disabilities and such severe physical disabilities that they would probably not be using a keyboard or mouse. “You have to seek out ‘work-arounds’ or solutions, otherwise negativity creeps in,” she observes.

Starting out with 10 families on Tyneside, Carol has set up the first of the Government’s Home Access Project (funded through Becta) for learners with PMLD. It’s one of a number of initiatives for children with special educational needs in North Tyneside, an area recognised for its best practice in inclusion They are receiving a basic kit of a computer with touch-screen, a switch box, some software including painting programs, a Flip video camera and a switch-activated MP3 player. She has inspired a colleague to make learning passports for each of the kids and is in the process of helping families to install their kit in whatever locations are best for their children.

It might be a bedroom or a conservatory so long as the child, the kit and suitable seating or a wheelchair can be accommodated.  As with other Home Access Projects, all the pupils will have a target or, as Carol prefers to call it, “a challenge” to meet with the aid of the kit. “This is not about giving pupils technology to keep them amused,” she insists. “it must lead to purposeful activity and help with their communication.”

Video becoming crucial for communication and assessment

She is experimenting with recordings of families’ voices on mp3 players to see whose voice children respond to best. The idea is that this voice may then be used on recordings of instructions in the classroom too. She believes video is also crucial for the children and is encouraging people to use the Flip camera to capture those unexpected moments when a child does something for the first time.

“Video is great for assessment for learning and gives our pupils a voice,” Carol explains. “If they cannot tell us things, they can show us and record it on the camera.

“The technology is not just for teaching; it helps us see our children more clearly. For example, we gave one boy a Flip video camera and he took it out with him and recorded his playtime. This was when we realised that he spends most of it avoiding other children and hiding. We saw his world through his eyes because of the technology.”

Many local authorities will be watching the progress of the Home Access Project with interest because nothing like it has been tried before, let alone the inclusion dimension where Carol Allen has such expertise. The message is getting out there because she has always been good at sharing her ideas and working with the special needs networks around the country.

“Being open minded is not enough,” warns Carol. “You need to search constantly for ideas or adaptations to improve practice but you can’t do it alone. Collaboration is vital. You need critical friends to temper wildness, mad friends to say, ‘Yes, do it,’ and practical friends to help support the implementation.”

Sometimes she works with individuals in the networks, bringing together researchers and classroom practitioners; at other times she shares her ideas through training sessions at exhibitions and regional events.  However, she also has the ear of the special needs software industry too, so her good ideas become products that other schools can use.

'Innovatory practice is never about a single person, technology or event...'

One example is Chatter Block, a type of talking dice which can be used for creating stories, sequencing and sound effects. There are six recordable sides, each with a clear pocket so they can be personalised for individual pupils. “TTS, who produce Chatter Block has an amazingly quick turnaround,” she says. “If you come up with a good idea and show how effective it could be they will make it and put it out in the market.

“It proves that innovatory practice is never about a single person, technology or event: it is about different people coming together and seeing the potential.”

At the time of writing, Carol was in Albania, training staff to work with children who have disabilities or who are recovering from abuse. Many companies donated copies of their software and Inclusive Technology paid for her flight and accommodation. “In the past,” she explains, “many of these children were considered outcasts and didn't go out of the house much, it's exciting to be at the cutting edge of freeing these children to learn.”

However, it’s the Home Access Project that is currently inspiring her most: “It has the potential to transform lives. Some of the parents of our pupils went to special schools themselves. They are not the sort who will just go out and buy a computer for their children. They don’t have the confidence to know what sort of technology their children need or how to adapt it. I have had parents come up to me and say, ‘We have waited years for this. It’s just like Christmas.’”

Conditions for innovation

  • Adopt a ‘can do’ attitude;
  • Get your hands dirty!  Never ask anyone to do anything you would not do yourself;
  • Never stop learning yourself;
  • Keep grounded - innovation for its own sake is interesting but is not necessarily replicable;
  • Flexibility – have a vision but allow deviation from any original action plan as circumstances become clear or change;
  • Remember that it is not always the big events, projects or ideas which support effective transformation – sometimes it is the smallest change which is needed;
  • Share practice – even your failures. Someone else might pick up the baton and come up with something which will benefit a group of pupils;
  • Celebrate and share!

Sources of inspiration

Practitioner:  Roger Bates
Theorist:  Linking Pedagogy and Space – Dr Kenn Fisher (Victoria Australia).  
Top products:  Flip camera; Clicker5; SwitchITMaker2; Beebot; YouTube – "particularly the videos that parents have posted about their children and their lives as parents"

SallySally McKeown McKeown is a freelance writer and is an expert in special needs and inclusion. She is currently working with Accessible Futures Ltd and Northgate, supporting a group of special schools in Kent through BSF wave 4.

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