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Navigating the Path of AI in Special Needs Education

Teaching & Inclusive Practices
Leadership & Implementation
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Opinion Piece
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Alex Russell

CEO, Bourne Education Trust

This thought piece discusses the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the learning experience for pupils with special needs. It acknowledges the challenges faced by teachers in providing personalised and differentiated work for these students and suggests AI as a promising solution to address these challenges.

The potential for AI to enhance the learning experience for all pupils, but particularly those with special needs, is vast. However, while there are undeniable benefits to leveraging AI in special needs education, it is essential to tread carefully to avoid potential pitfalls that could hinder its effectiveness and inclusivity.

Too often, differentiated work for pupils with special education needs is poorly prepared, often lacking personalisation and beyond the capacity of overworked teachers to produce week in, week out. This is not to criticise teachers per se; more, it is sad reflection of their overwhelming workload and the need to prioritise tasks. Furthermore, it reflects the growing breadth, complexity and volume of needs our mainstream teachers are having to cater for. Frankly, it is an impossible job. Thankfully, AI may provide a time efficient and effective solution. 

AI-powered educational tools can adapt to individual pupils' needs and learning styles. For pupils with special needs, this means tailored content, pacing, and support that can significantly enhance their learning experiences. Key to establishing this as the norm is to train not only teachers but teaching assistants too. The latter are often the key individual in enabling pupils to access learning.  AI can break down barriers to accessibility by providing text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and other assistive technologies that can help pupils with disabilities engage with educational content more effectively. Resources can be tailored to meet the needs of each pupil with relatively little input, provided people are adequately trained.

Parents and carers of  children with SEND are often unclear how to help their child with their work once out of school. AI-powered tools can provide round-the-clock support for pupils, offering assistance with homework, test preparation, and skill-building exercises. This continuous support can be particularly beneficial for pupils who require extra practice and reinforcement.

There are some challenges to overcome in embedding the use of AI in resource preparation. Those adults involved in supporting the child often lack confidence in using AI programmes. Sympathetic and skilled training is essential. My experience is that individuals rapidly grow in confidence if the training is structured into bitesize pieces and is revisited frequently. Working with these colleagues is key as while AI can provide support and personalisation, it cannot replace the empathy and human touch that staff bring to special needs education. Striking the right balance between AI and human interaction is essential.

Key Learning