Addressing Inequality in UK Education: Bridging the Gap for Students with SEN & ESOL Students in the Age of Digital Transformation

 Georgia Read , Marketing Executive at Bodyswaps
November 10th 2023

Students with Special Educational Needs (SEN), known as Additional Learning Needs (ALN) in Wales and Additional Support Needs (ASN) in Scotland, or students who are learning English as a Second Language (ESOL) often face tough challenges in UK education, from primary school all the way through to college and university. Digital transformation has the potential to only exacerbate these existing inequalities unless the challenges that students with SEN and ESOL students face are taken into consideration.

Only then can digital technologies be a transformative tool for all.

This blog will explore some of the challenges these students face and how digital technologies can be used to combat these or otherwise provide support in educational environments.


Bridging the Gap for Students with SEN & ESOL Students in the Age of Digital Transformation

Challenges Facing Students with SEN

Students with SEN are a large and variable group, with 1.5 million primary/secondary pupils in England alone known to have SEN and covering conditions as wide-ranging as hearing impairments, mental health problems, dyslexia, autism, and severe learning disabilities. In 2022, 17% of primary/secondary students in England received SEN support, including 4% with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans.

Typically, SEN is sorted into four main categories of needs:

  1. Communication and Interaction
  2. Cognition and Learning
  3. Social, Emotional and Mental Health
  4. Physical and/or Sensory

All of these come with their own unique set of challenges and varying support requirements.

Students with special educational needs encounter difficulties not only during their primary and secondary schooling but also when they move on to college or start working. Students with SEN are more likely to drop out of higher education and are less likely to achieve a First or Upper Second-Class degree. They’re also less likely to secure highly skilled employment or further study soon after completing their first degree, particularly students who reported a ‘social and communication’ disability (such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder).

The proportion of pupils who had progressed to Higher Education by age 19 in 2021/22 was

  • 8.9% for pupils with an EHC plan or Statement of SEN
  • 24.2% for pupils receiving SEN Support
  • 51.2% for pupils with no SEND

Using Digital Technologies to Bridge the Gap

Because of the varying nature of SEN, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution - each individual need should be tailored for - and this is where technology comes in. Technologies are already being utilised to benefit students with SEN, providing support where educators can’t or additional support on top of educator assistance. We’ll go over some of the potential technologies that can help bridge the gap for students with SEN:

Assistive Technologies

Assistive Technologies (AT) are specialised products designed for people with SEND. They help with:

  • Increasing self-reliance and a sense of independence
  • Communication with teachers and peers
  • Increased confidence and comfort

These include a variety of different hardware and software tools, including:

  • Text-to-Speech software that converts written text into speech, assisting students with reading difficulties or visual impairments.
  • Speech-to-Text software that can convert dictated speech into written text, helpful for students with writing or motor skill challenges to put their thoughts into written words.
  • Screen readers that read aloud content on screens, such as websites or ebooks, designed for people with visual impairments.
  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) tools such as communication boards and picture exchange systems that aid non-verbal or speech-impaired students to communicate.
  • Maths Assistance Software that can assist students with mathematical learning disabilities through step-by-step guidance, visuals, and interactive exercises.

AT are already widely used to support students with SEN in education. In the past two years, 49% of schools and colleges who responded to the government survey had implemented technology focused on supporting learners with SEN. And 63% of those gave technology that supports learners with SEN a NET rating of 8-10.

But as technology advances, additional avenues for students with SEN should be considered.

Augmented Reality Technology

Augmented reality technologies are becoming more and more popular as a tool for students with SEN to develop certain skills. Devices that use AR ‘have been associated with increased motivation in students with SEN, along with supporting knowledge assimilation, problem-solving and collaborating effectively with others’.

As AR overlays virtual images onto real-world images, it can convey knowledge in a more engaging way. AR apps are also often easily accessible and inexpensive. As they rely on visual images, it does, of course, limit its use for students with visual impairment-related needs. However, research has shown that it can bridge the communication gap for students with hearing impairments.

Lecture Capture and Captioning Software

For educators working in further and higher education, it can make the world of difference to students with SEN to record lectures, add closed-captioning, and upload them to a learning management system or other institution-wide platform. 

For students with hearing impairments or language processing issues, the ability to absorb lessons through dual processing of visual and auditory can be beneficial.

Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence Technology

Immersive learning technologies such as virtual reality (VR) provide simulated real-world experiences that can further students’ understanding of the world around them, which, research suggests, would enable them to foster and improve their social and emotional abilities. As such, the same research indicates the potential effectiveness of VR for students with ASD, as VR provides ‘authenticity and realism in a controlled environment, so it can enhance learning and perception processes, enabling the acquisition of real-world skills’.

And, as work experience during further education can be particularly vital for students with SEN to succeed in employment, the realistic simulations that VR provides can enhance their feelings of preparedness before stepping foot in the workplace. Equally, for those with SEN who are NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training), VR can provide an opportunity for them to explore education settings such as colleges in a safe and self-contained way to help them tackle anxieties around returning to education.

Something that is often considered hand-in-hand with VR is artificial intelligence (AI), as it’s often used to empower and personalise VR learning experiences. AI can provide a level of on-the-spot personalisation that is otherwise difficult or impossible to replicate. And this is key as it’s been proven that personalised learning is helpful in supporting students with SEN.

Of course, any steps into digital transformation for students with SEN should be considered with great care and expertise. There can be a variety of hurdles to implementing new technologies, and it’s important to prepare for or take preventative measures against these at your institution.

There are various other groups who also face challenges, such as ESOL students. Now, let's dive into some of the issues they encounter and explore potential digital solutions.

Challenges Facing ESOL Students

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) refers to learning English as a language other than their first language. The number of students in the UK requiring ESOL classes was reported to be approximately 850,000, and these students face a number of challenges in the UK education system. 

One of the most intimidating challenges are the hurdles caused by the language barrier. It can be harder to understand lectures, communicate with peers and professors, and complete assignments. It can also lead to social isolation as they struggle to connect with peers or engage in classroom discussions. And this isolation can negatively impact their mental and emotional well-being.

There’s also the fact that some institutions may not have adequate resources or support for ESOL students. There may be limited access to language tutors, appropriate learning materials, and targeted support services, making it difficult for these students to catch up with their peers.

Research suggests that adult ESOL students in the UK further education sector have fewer chances to use digital technologies as a part of their language learning experience.

Digital Solutions to Bridge the Gap

Language Learning Technologies

These can include language learning apps and websites - often the most effective are hidden behind paywalls, so paying for and offering open access to your ESOL students can help them on their academic journeys.

ESOL students using technologies for language learning experienced greater gains in vocabulary, oral fluency and communication. Research has uncovered that exposure to authentic language learning materials (aka, learning materials that provide the learner with experience of the target materials, rather than explaining how the language is used) through digital technologies can help foster a variety of benefits for ESOL students.

Subtitling/Captioning Tools

Similarly to what we discussed for students with SEN, making sure that all learning material that includes video or audio also includes subtitles or closed-captioning can help ESOL students with their understanding of the content.

Virtual Reality and Other Immersive Technologies

Virtual reality and other immersive technologies (extended or augmented reality) can provide safe spaces for ESOL students to practise communication skills and other soft skills without fearing judgement from others. 

Additionally, with many VR technologies being assisted by AI, learners can receive personalised feedback to help them improve. Creating simulations to learn soft skills in a repeatable environment also gives learners the space to try again and again with their training, without risking anxieties around wasting time.

Bridging the Gap

It’s key to remember that education inequalities stem from a mix of different issues, including the needs required, social class, and societal stigma. Therefore, it’s important to consider the intersectionality of these inequalities in education, especially as digital transformations scale. 

We want to reiterate here and emphasise that special education needs and requirements for ESOL students are wide-ranging and varying, and no tools we discuss in this blog will be accessible or beneficial to all.

Digital technologies can offer many benefits by diversifying not just what is learned but where, when, and how it is learned

There are many paths that digital transformation can lead us down, and with careful consideration, it can serve to bridge the gap in education for students of all varying needs.

Immersive Learning with Bodyswaps

At Bodyswaps, we’re always aiming to provide the best training for our learners. Our immersive learning is effective at building confidence, reducing anxieties, and enhancing a variety of soft skills. 

We’re actively exploring ways to enrich our modules, with a focus on delivering immersive soft-skill learning experiences that bring value to a broad spectrum of learners, including those with SEN or with ESOL backgrounds. 

If you'd like to explore the possibilities of immersive learning for your students, download information on our new Discovery Package today.

Graphic of discovery package

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