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Special Educational Needs and the SEMERCs



Work in Progress - needs to be completed


NCET 1967-73


The Microelectronics Education Programme set up four regional centres to support children with special educational needs. These four SEMERCs (Special Education Micro-Electronics Resource Centres) were managed by Bob Dyke/Martin Littler (Manchester); Jean Tait/Andrew Fluck (Redbridge, London); Jean Johnston (Bristol) and Colin Richards/Derek Cooper (Newcastle).

(Fluck, 2004)

They were established in 1984 under the auspices of the Council for Educational Technology with Mary Hope as national co- ordinator (Jean Johnston in Vincent, 1989, p.276 & Saunders, 1984, p.95). Most were closed in 1989.

Mancheser Semerc continues

Martin Littler was one of the pioneers in computer education, founding the two hundred school Liverpool Primary Computer Group in 1982. In 1983, he was seconded to the MicroElectronics Education Programme (MEP) while serving as a Deputy Head Teacher in Toxteth, Liverpool. He was involved in providing numerous "MicroPrimer" courses for Liverpool LEA where his work was described by Bill Frost HMI as "outstanding".

Martin joined Lancashire as an IT advisory teacher before being appointed Director of Manchester Special Education Micro-Electronic Resources Centre (SEMERC) in 1986. In anticipation of the planned closure of Manchester SEMERC in 1989, he organised over fifty three-day residential courses to pass on what the SEMERCs had learned. These were attended by specialist teachers and advisory teachers from the thirty-seven LEAs and ELBs (including much of Wales, Northern Ireland and the West Midlands) for which Manchester SEMERC had a coordinating role.

Manchester SEMERC survived the withdrawal of central funding in 1989 and became the self-funding NorthWest SEMERC, managed by a consortium of LEAs led by Oldham. Under Martin's leadership, SEMERC began publishing software and grew to a £2m company. SEMERC was sold to Thomas Nelson & Son, the education publishers who formed a joint venture with Yorkshire Television, in March 1995.

In September 1996 Martin Littler, Roger Bates and Trish Hornsey and other staff left to set up Inclusive Technology as a division of games giant, Ocean Software. This team bought the new company as a management buyout in April 1998.

In 1988 Martin Littler founded the Micros for Special Needs Exhibition in Oldham. This three-day conference, exhibition and seminar event ran for eight years until Martin left SEMERC in 1996. During this period Martin Littler created and organised the Special Needs village at BETT including the four-day seminar programme. More recently, Inclusive Technology has introduced the Special Needs Fringe seminar programme at BETT, which is now in its third year.

Martin has been involved in face-to-face IT training since 1982, including dual-language training of the new ESG advisory teachers in Bangor. In 1990 and 1991 he directed the four national residential SEN/IT advisory teacher training courses for MESU/NCET with an annual budget of £50,000. He will not be involved in delivering NOF training but will be responsible for its overall administration.

Blue File Software

These four centres were responsible for the development of a range of software that was freely copyable, called 'The Blue File'. The writing of this software was promoted by encouraging and sharing ideas between teachers, commissioning programmers to implement software suggestions, providing release time for teachers to write programs themselves and by centre staff taking on all these roles. This range of software was primarily intended to be used by children with special educational needs. The programs therefore addressed basic skills such as matching, selecting, simple numeracy, switch- operated communication etc. Making the programs simple to operate for these students yet catering for a range of input methods to enable those with physical disabilities to use the software, represented a real challenge. Some of the most advanced technologies of the time were utilised to address these difficulties. Input devices such as the expanded keyboard, the photonic wand (a light-pen equipped with a small telescope was mounted on one arm of some eye-glasses), touch screens, all kinds of switches, and in particular the Concept Keyboard, were used. This latter was a touch sensitive tablet upon which a sheet of paper could be placed carrying pictures or icons representing elements of a learning situation. When connected to a simple word processor, students could write sentences by merely touching pictures or phrases on the paper as it rested upon the concept keyboard. Output devices such as robotic devices, turtles, musical instruments and voice synthesizers were also employed.

Oxford ACE Centre

(from ACE Centre history - edit) In 1984 Prue Fuller, a special needs teacher, and Patrick Poon, a software programmer, secured a grant to develop assistive software for pupils at the Ormerod School in Oxford, a local authority school for children with disabilities. Tim Southgate, the Headteacher, was very supportive of the idea and gave them what little space he could afford within the buildings – half a classroom shared with the local Schools Psychology Service and a converted toilet for an office. But this was enough for the project to blossom, and out of it emerged the fledgling ACE Centre. Within a year Prue and Patrick were joined by an SEN teacher, a physics teacher and a secretary, and together they began to assess young people with communication disabilities.
Technology at that time was basic by today's standards. The educational computer of choice – the BBC B – was very limited in functionality. In order to change the software from, for example, a writing package to a drawing package, the computer had to be turned off, the new software chip inserted, and then turned back on again. Nevertheless, it offered a route to the possibility of specialised software that could help pupils who struggled to write or speak. Slowly, accessories to make this a reality appeared. Accessories like keyguards for the keyboard to help those who struggled to hit one key at a time, switches for those with limited motor control, and artificial voiceboxes like the Dolphin, which could convert the text typed on the keyboard into robotic but recognisable speech.
Soon the first communication aids appeared on the market. Large switch button aids like the BigMack would speak a single recorded message when they were pressed. Larger aids like the Mardis had a large number of messages that could be accessed by two switches.
The staff at the ACE Centre would discuss new projects with university and commercial developers, and Prue Fuller worked with the Department of Education on a range of initiatives concerning 'microtechnology', as it was known at the time. Funding was tight, but finances were helped by developing links with the Micro Education Project (which finally became BECTa ).
Soon after starting, the ACE Centre was invited to be member of College of Speech and Language Therapists' working party on computers and speech therapy which could provide government ESG funding for equipment. With DES support, the ACE Centre contacted all the schools for children with disabilities, encouraging them to seek their LEA's support for equipment under the government's scheme. LEAs sought the advice of the Centre when considering their bids, and the Centre offered a consultancy scheme to help LEAs to use their ESG funding in the most effective way.
Training days were also offered, and once a year the staff organised a three-day over-weekend residential training session in assistive technology. In return, staff from the ACE Centre were asked to assist on the MESU/NCET/Becta weekend courses for special needs teachers and advisors in the following years.
In 1985 the Gatsby Charitable Trust provided funds for an occupational therapist, and a speech and language therapist. This was to prove an invaluable investment as later in the year a Nuffield Grant enabled the centre to work with and provide nine children with electronic communication aids on a loan basis. This equipment was to form the basis of the ACE Centre loan library.
Realising that they could not handle the volume of interest and enquiries generated by their pioneering work, the ACE Centre bid for funding by the Nuffield Foundation to establish a practice in the north of England. This centre, the Northern ACE Centre, opened at Park Dean School in Oldham with two teachers, who worked part time for Oldham LEA and part time for the Northern ACE Centre.
The ACE Centre also played a roll in developing special needs software at the Special Needs Software Centre which was based at the Manchester SEMERC (Special Needs Micro-Electronic Resource Centre). It also worked in collaboration with all the regional SEMERCs in Bristol, Manchester, Redbridge and Newcastle. In the first of what would become many international assignments, the Centre was invited by ELEPAP to work with pupils at a special school in Athens, Greece.
1986 saw the development of the Centre's AccessMaths software for the BBC computer. This software was one of the few mouse-capable programs developed for the BBC and enabled pupils to create and measure geometrical shapes. With the aid of funding by Department of Trade and Industry, work also started on SAW (Switch Access to Windows), which was software that gave switch users access to the then revolutionary Windows 3.1, the first Microsoft operating system that was designed primarily for use with a mouse. Modern commercial software such as Clicker and The Grid were built on ideas initially explored in SAW.
Internationally, links continued to be forged. The ISAAC (International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication) conference was held in Cardiff, the ACE Centre was invited to give presentation in Sweden, and cooperation with the Greek ELEPAP organisation continued as they sent a teacher to train at the ACE Centre.
1988 and 1989
During 1988 and 1989 the assessment and training work of the Centre continued to flourish, and key project work was also undertaken. Involvement in a rehabilitation project for people with head injuries resulted in the development of the Centre's StartWrite software, which was designed to help such people with specific writing difficulties. The ACE Centre was also invited to participate in it's first international project, COMPSPEC. This involved a partnership with DART, a Swedish special needs organisation, and produced a prototype modular system that could produce tailor-made communication systems.
As a result of lobbying and in recognition of the importance of the work that ACE and other similar centres was carrying out, the government rolled out GEST, its first AAC-based country-wide project in 1989. This project provided equipment to schools for use with children with communication needs. The ACE Centre coordinated the project, and a Training Officer was appointed to manage the work.
Prue Fuller, the Centre's Director, was becoming increasingly involved in many aspects of the growing field of Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) in the UK. She was invited to be a member of the committee of the Viscount Nuffield Auxiliary Fund, which distributed money for projects involving disabled people, and was made an evaluator for the Call for Proposals for the annual international TIDE (Technology Initiative for Disabled and Elderly People) conferences. She was also later to be a keynote speaker at ICTE (International Conference on Technology and Education) in Orlando, and went on to become biennial President of ISAAC.
1989 also saw the establishment of the Friends of the ACE Centre, a group that would provide support and guidance for the Centre. The National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) were keen for the Centre to become independent of Oxfordshire County Council, so in 1994 the Friends of the ACE Centre became the ACE Centre charity.