Clare Howard

Across the country, there are over 100 specialist colleges which deliver further education and training for over 6,000 students with learning difficulties and / or disabilities.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in specialist colleges making rapid changes to keep their learners and staff safe, whilst still providing high quality education for learners with a wide range of complex needs.

But what does “home learning” or “remote learning” or “blended learning” mean for our students? It’s one thing to ask non-disabled students to switch overnight from face-to-face to online learning, quite another if your students have sensory impairments, are non-verbal, or require intensive learning, medical or therapy support.

The nature of learning in specialist colleges is often highly experiential, sometimes with 1-1 teaching and support available. The work specialist colleges do cannot be fully replicated online. But specialist colleges have sought to provide continuity of provision where possible, through a variety of means.

Natspec, the membership body for specialist provision, is supporting colleges by collating and promoting the best practice, to help colleges provide a meaningful learning experience for learners who ordinarily depend on sensory and experiential teaching and learning approaches.

Natspec’s Home Learning website provides a framework, helping colleges to focus on the quality of the home learning and support they offer. The site is split into 6 sections of different resources: learning material, monitoring progress, families, wellbeing, therapy, transition in and out of college. You can also search by type of cohort: for learners with ASD, for learners with PMLD, for learners with sensory impairments, and for learners on work based learning programmes.

Natspec’s TechAbility service offers advice, technical guidance and webinars on ensuring learners and staff have the assistive technology in place to support remote learning. The immediate need was for an online place to share the best resources, so “Aiding learning from home” was quickly populated with information on AAC devices, sensory software, accessibility features in mainstream software and more.

TechAbility has also provided a series of webinars, including:

Colleges that would like to hear more about ensuring accessibility for learners who previously may have faced barriers in a physical classroom setting should attend the “TechAbility Conference 2020: Access to a digital future” on 3 November. The programme is dynamic and interactive, including 20-minute presentations providing practice based practical solutions, and 5-minute AT shorts, highlighting new AT projects, suppliers, and quick-fire hints.

The TechAbility Standards are also available, forming a “road map” of what good assistive technology looks like with resources and guides.

Here are some examples of what colleges did during the height of the pandemic in the Spring and Summer.

Physical/hard copy learning packs

Home learning does not always rely on technology or online learning. For students who are used to the predictable routine in college, adjusting to home learning was a huge transition and a challenge for many learners. Specialist colleges have set work within hard copy home learning packs, a method that enables greater opportunities for different formats. Often, they included materials that students have been working on, or are already familiar with from college.

Parents or carers got involved, for example, by recording the work achieved, and colleges collected examples of work sent into college and monitoring when targets are being met.

Leap College and Landmarks Specialist College are two of the many colleges that supported this transition by providing learning-from-home packs for their students. At Leap, staff sent out hard copy work packs including daily activities, structured routines, targets, visuals, Preparation for Adulthood resources and functional skills activities adapted to be transferable in the home.

At Landmarks, packs contained a variety of information and ideas for parents and carers. There was information on how targets and functional skills development can be embedded into daily routines. For students taking recognised qualifications, the packs included practice qualification papers. There was also accessible and easy-read information about the coronavirus and why students are working at home.

The packs were supplemented with close contact and support from Learning Support Assistants. Phone, emails and Zoom meetings are being used by LSAs to support learners working through their packs. Tutors and LSAs at the college embraced Zoom to continue learning in the face-to-face format, providing art sessions and weekly tutorials.

Remote therapy

Colleges are also being inventive with their approaches in ensuring continuity of provision for therapy. A number of colleges provide speech and language therapy sessions using video conferencing software. Some send out exercises and programmes for learners to complete at home. Therapy staff are embracing a collaborative approach with parents and carers to make therapy work for young people.

Remote wellbeing support

In these challenging times, colleges also stepped up to provide pastoral support throughout the crisis. Perhaps the hardest challenge has been in communicating why everything is happening.

All colleges check in with students and their families regularly, by phone, email or video chat as appropriate. Counselling staff and tutors are available for students as needed. Chadsgrove Educational Trust sent students birthday and Easter cards to keep their spirits up.

Staff at Homefield College developed a programme called “Homefield from home” and have put together a range of resources including an accessible, easy-to-read video aimed at young people with learning disabilities. https://youtu.be/SSkcvlTjTUA

Social media is being put to good use for keeping in touch with students. On Facebook, Communication Specialist College Doncaster is hosting daily mindfulness sessions. The sessions, signed in BSL, provide an opportunity for students to take a break from their day and recentre themselves.

Online learning

Colleges used a variety of means to help students access learning online, with some sending laptops or ipads home, as well as assistive technology equipment.

At Hereward College, a virtual college was set up at the beginning of the pandemic in April. Sitting within Hereward’s main website, the page is easy for anyone and everyone to access, providing support beyond Hereward’s own students. The Hub provides links to a variety of resources, with suggested timetables for the day as well as activities to fill it. Resources are organised handily into sections, making it easy to identify activities and tasks depending on learner skill and need.

Students at Foxes Academy took part in functional skills lessons at home by, for example, taking a virtual city break to Paris, visiting a museum and sending an e-postcard. Replicating the vocational, hotel-based training has required the education team to get creative – but students are now using their skills to wine and dine their families, instead.

It was easy to see that learners at Derwen College engaged with online learning, through the college’s multiple social media accounts. Students showed off their independent living skills by baking, cooking meals, and cleaning their homes. Tutors posted regularly to the accounts with task ideas for the students.

Clare Howard, NATSPEC's Chief Executive

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