Category Archives: Politics


Will cheap be cheerful for those who need communication aids?

The impact of iPads and Androids on the world of AAC was the big theme for the Communication Matters annual conference at the University of Leeds last week.

Communication aids which can play back pre-recorded speech or generate synthetic speech have revolutionised the lives of many of the 300,000 children and adults in the UK who will need Augmentative and Alternative Communication at some point in their lives.

ipad aacMany people who need AAC have severe and permanent physical disabilities from birth as a result of conditions such as cerebral palsy. Others have degenerative conditions which leave them unable to speak.

It is a disgrace that in a wealthy country such as Great Britain children and adults are being left without the power of speech simply to save money.

One solution is to find cheaper alternatives to the specialist aids. In recent times, companies have started to develop apps which will work with iPhones, iPads, Androids and other tablet devices.

Good news you might think.  The trouble is that the users need support, training for themselves and their carers, robust devices which will bounce off pavements and ongoing research and development to make the next generation of communication aids the best that they can be. Buying a tablet online and downloading an app does not even begin to address these problems.

Catherine Harris, Chair of Communication Matters, summed up the dilemma saying: “It is an exciting time for the sector. Developments in adapting technology have increased the range of options for people and the growth of access methods, such as eye gaze, provide people with alternative ways to use their equipment. However, these developments need underpinning by comprehensive assessment, funding of equipment and longer term support services if they are going to be really effective.’

How times have changed


A comparison of grants and costs in 1970 and 2010

A level results are out today and thousands of students will be finding out if they are going to university this year, so I was especially pleased to get this lovely graphic from Kieran Elsby at Prezzybox

We now have twice the number of universities but have nearly three times as many students dropping out and graduates are considerably less likely to get a job in 2013 than they were in 1973.

If they were smokers, the average graduate salary then would buy them 7407 packets of fags in 1973. These days it will only buy 2491 packets. Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer appreciate just how much tax he is losing?

Making a little bit of money go a very, very long way

It’s My Money Week and I have been hounding the good people at pfeg, the UK’s leading finance education charity for some case studies. From September financial literacy is going to be a compulsory element of the National Curriculum- and about time too.

I have talked to three schools which are all creating innovative projects for young people who are out of mainstream education and it is heartening to see how committed teachers are to developing money sense in the next generation.

The trouble is that so many of the resources schools have do not accord with life in the UK today. Budgeting and savings advice are all very well but they depend upon you having money to start with.

For those families trying to find their way through the maze of benefits there are no easy answers. If you are subject to the bedroom tax do you:
1 Move house and incur all those moving costs?
2 Stay put and lose 14% from your benefits?
3 Get a payday loan to tide you over and get a takeaway to cheer yourself up as you won’t be going out?

Pfeg and Money Saving Experts are doing an amazing job but it is an uphill struggle. Look at what Oxfam said last week:

‘Food banks are reporting that most of those accessing their services are low income families in crisis, many of which are working households. 62% of children in poverty are living in families where at least one parent has a job, indicating that wages are too low and that current Minimum Wage legislation is not adequate to lift people out of poverty through work.’

Walking the Breadline The scandal of food poverty in 21st-century Britain

Olivia Barker is making a difference in Kampala

Olivia Barker in Kampala
Kids Club Kampala

Olivia Barker is 23 years old and has a day job as a project officer for an international development agency.

For the last four years she has devoted her spare time to running a charity called Kids Club Kampala  which works with vulnerable children and women in the slums of Uganda.

Now her efforts have been recognised by Vodafone who have given her a World of Difference Award which will let her work for the charity full time in Kampala for four months.

She first visited Uganda in 2007 and was shocked by the living conditions. The slums are hotbeds of crime and violence. Sanitation is poor. Children often have only one or two items of clothes and do not own shoes so it is impossible to keep clean and away from infection.

After she left Uganda, Olivia kept in touch with local translator Sam and knew that money was running out. She returned with a friend and together they founded Kids Club Kampala. These days they support over 4000 children in 16 different communities throughout Uganda

Now, thanks to the Vodafone award, Olivia can focus on the charity and put it on a more professional footing. She hopes to raise money and make more people aware of the plight of these communities.

‘People live in very overcrowded conditions where disease and illness are rife. Many walk the long way around it in order to avoid the dirt and the open sewers,’ said Olivia. ‘I want to raise money so that these children know they are loved. I want them to have the chance to play, have fun and just be kids for a while.’

If you can help or would like to donate to the charity, please contact

Deaf young people on the Buzz

Gok Wan
Gok Wan offers advice to deaf young people

Gok Wan, famous for his programme How to Look Good Naked, once advised a young deaf girl: ‘Don’t be self-conscious of your hearing aid! Embrace it and show it off!-Maybe you could customise it with some fabulous diamante, to really make a statement out of it.’

Now young people can put his advice into practice.

Covering and customising hearing aids
Customising hearing aids

On the Buzz, a forum run by the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS), has a section called Ear Art with ideas for designs and ways of using nail foil stickers to cover hearing aids or cochlear implants.

The forum is where deaf young can find out about events around the country and meet their contemporaries online. It can decrease social isolation and give them ready access to events and links to other online resources such as Your Local Cinema , a one stop site with information about showings of subtitled films.

The Buzz also provides guidance for young people who are trying to make plans for their future. Paul’s story is about going to college and becoming more independent while Sam’s story is about taking up an apprenticeship. Priya’s story will resonate with many young people at this time of year as it is about tactics and resources to counteract the stresses of preparing for examinations. See stories here.

Celebrated voice calls out for new legislation for disabled people

He has done stand up for Comic Relief, trekked across a desert in northern Kenya and is one of the best known voices on Radio 4. But Peter White MBE, Disability Affairs Correspondent for the BBC, was not an early adopter of technology.

Peter White speaking at BATA AGM in London
Peter White MBE, Disability Affairs Correspondent BBC

‘I am not a computer expert and not an especially good problem solver,’ he told a packed audience at the annual general meeting of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) in London. Like many others he was slow to embrace technology which he attributed to an understandable and all too common ‘fear of the new’.

However as a blind Braille user he was also exceptionally adept with old technology. Despite the cumbersome nature of the Perkins Brailler, he succeeded in the competitive world of media. producing and reading his own scripts. ‘I was a fast Braille reader and won awards,’ he said. ‘In fact, I was praised by TS Eliot and patted on the head by the Queen Mother.’

What converted him to computers was the increasing realisation that he was not a ‘good colleague.’ He could not collaborate with sighted people at the BBC because they could not read Braille and he could not see print. They needed to find a format which would work for both blind and sighted writers. Fortunately a technology enthusiast took him in hand and pointed out that he was missing out on a lot of good books if he just relied on Braille.

Early attempts to use the technology were not always plain sailing, Fifteen minutes before going on air for his In Touch programme, the Braille Embosser linked to a printer ate his script and he had to improvise. On another occasion his script was printed out in Grade 1 Braille. ‘It is very difficult to adapt if you have if not read it for 30 years,’ he recalled, ‘so I used a mixture of reading and desperate ad libbing: not an ideal combination if you are trying to explain the complexities of the benefit system.’

Despite being a convert to technology, Peter is concerned that new developments leave disabled people behind. Access to the digital world is as important as the right to text books or to equipment. The Equalities Act and Disability Discrimination Act have given disabled people physical access to buildings but he is calling for legislation to compel manufacturers to provide equal access to their products and services.

BATA supports this stance. With members drawn from charities, commercial organisations and specialist schools, BATA  provides expert and informed opinion and  impartial advice to government departments and agencies. They are calling on government to improve the availability of communications aids and assistive technology in schools.

‘As I get older I get more enthusiastic about the potential of technology.’ said Peter. ‘Speed of development must not leave blind people behind. New vistas have opened. It is crucial these opportunities are not snatched way.’

‘Technology, Special Needs and Disability ‘- Peter White MBE ,Disability Correspondent, BBC was sponsored by BATA member Noel Duffy from Dolphin Computer Access

Happy birthday dear nasen

Nasen was 21 last week and like all 21 year olds they had a bit of a knees up. This one was really good as it was at the House of Commons and the guest of honour was Roberta Blackman-Woods MP.

Nasen has long campaigned for better training for teachers and in the last two years they have worked with over 4000 SENCOs. The feedback they have received shows that teachers do not feel confident that they can cope with the increasingly diverse range of needs in schools today.

Roberta Blackman-Woods MP with Lorraine Petersen in the House of Commons
Lorraine Petersen celebrates nasen's 21st with Roberta Blackman-Woods MP

‘We need to ensure that teachers are supported and empowered to deliver the first class education that all children deserve, no matter what their abilities are,’ said Lorraine Petersen, nasen’s CEO. ‘We have come to rely very heavily on additional support- Teaching Assistants and Learning Support staff– often resulting in the least qualified being responsible for the education of the most vulnerable young people.’

Nasen is now to launch its Every Teacher campaign, with three main objectives, drawn from Sharon Hodgson’s recommendations in the Labour Party SEN Review:

• Every new teacher should undertake a minimum module on SEN as part of their initial teacher training to support them in identifying and intervening with pupils
• One inset day per year given over to promoting good practice on inclusive teaching, sharing experience and knowledge of SEND
• SENCOs should to be part of the Senior Leadership Team

The campaign is very timely. SENCOs and teachers will soon have to cope with many changes to special needs provision: new SEND legislation, the single school based assessment process, the introduction of Education, Health and Care Plans with optional Personal Budgets, radical changes to school funding plus the growth in academies and free schools will all provide huge challenges to educational professionals over the next two years.

It’s good to know that nasen will be looking after their interests.

Caroline Wright, BESA and the House of Lords

Caroline Wright of BESA
Caroline Wright of BESA

Tonight I am meeting Caroline Wright face to face. I interviewed her for Merlin John Online 
We have emailed and talked on the phone so much that I feel as if I know her quite well but in fact we met just once – very briefly – at the farewell do for Ray Barker.

Caroline is not the new Ray. Nor is she a replacement. One thing I have learnt is that as the new director at BESA Caroline will put her own stamp on the organisation. She has a formidable pedigree with extensive overseas experience which will be of great benefit to the UK software community but she also has great charm

Most importantly she has a very clear set of values: ‘Education matters and is always likely to be featured in the first few pages of a newspaper because it is relevant to most of the population. We have all had an education and we nearly all know someone who is having one now. The role as a director at BESA ticks every box for me. I love education and this job lets me be part of a team and puts me back at the heart of strategy and delivery.’

Tonught I shall enjoy being BESA’s guest at their annual House of Lords reception.

Banning calculators is not the answer!

Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss has announced that calculators will be banned in maths tests for 11-year-olds from 2014. She claims that children are over-reliant on calculators and miss the rigorous grounding in mental and written arithmetic, “By banning calculators in the maths test, we will reduce the dependency on them in the classroom for the most basic sums.”

There are so many reasons why children should be allowed to use calculators. They let pupils explore data, spot patterns and number crunch fast and accurately. They help pupils develop a sense of what is a plausible answer. If left to their own devices, many children, especially those with dyscalculia, will struggle to do 3 or 4 questions. With a calculator they can do a whole page and start to build a feeling for what is a sensible answer. Calculators can be used to check answers too so pupils who have done a calculation in their head or on paper can try a bit of self-checking and become more independent learners.

Pupils need to learn estimating skills and a problem solving approach. These are the foundation of mathematical thinking whereas the four rules are numeracy. Interestingly, Ms Truss talks about ‘sums’ which immediately shows her ignorance. Sum only covers addition and I doubt that children are just adding up day after day.

Years ago I was asked to run a class on using calculators in an FE college because children were leaving school without this skill and employers, especially in the building trade, needed young people who were confident users of this very basic piece of technology. Similarly there have been a number of Trade Union courses on using a calculator to work out percentage increases, members’ pensions and other benefits. I wonder if the government does all its calculations on paper? Maybe this is why so many of their statistics are so suspect.

Financial expert Martin Lewis, creator of  has said, ‘We’re a financially illiterate nation with a massive personal debt problem, about to treble student loans.’

So when we are faced with large scale poverty and unprecedented levels of debt, the government suggests we should stop young people being ‘over-reliant on calculators.’  They have to be joking!

Cheesy afternoon with Berkswell CE Primary School

pupils from BerkswellRam Hall Farm was awash with huge puddles as I made my way across to the milking parlour to meet the farmer Stephen Fletcher, chef Idris Caldora and Brian Hainsworth who works for the charity Farming and Countryside Education (FACE).

10 children from Berkswell CE Primary School were on a visit, accompanied by their class teacher Mr Penn and headteacher Tracy Drew. They were there to learn how ewes’ milk becomes the famous Berkswell cheese and to make some simple dishes with Idris, an award winning chef who has worked in many top restaurants and is now Executive Chef of the Adopt a School scheme.

We put on blue plastic hats and put bags on our feet to stop the spread of dirt and headed into the dairy to meet Lin Dutch, the cheesemaker and her team. We learnt about acidity, bacteria and germs, curds and whey and the wash needed to put a rind on a cheese. We sampled the whey and felt bags of cheese at different stage of production and marvelled at the cheese store which contains over 1500 cheeses at any one time.

The children then donned paper pinnies and a chef’s hat (small size) and under chef Caldero’s vigilant eye learnt to make Tomato Tarte and a Greek Salad which they took home with them.

They were joined by Meriden MP Caroline Spellman who turned out to be a good sport as well as a good cook as she pitched in and cooked alongside the children.

The event was organised by FACE