Assistive Technology at Catcote Futures

Assistive technology has the power to transform students’ lives.

Below, we hear from one of our member colleges, Catcote Futures, about the way assistive technology is integrated into their provision.

Assistive Technology at Catcote Futures

At Catcote Futures in Hartlepool, a college for students with complex, severe and/or profound and multiple learning difficulties, assistive technology is embedded in everything we do. We truly believe in celebrating what our students can do, as opposed to focusing on what they cannot.

Graham making a smoothie

As it should be, assistive technology is a natural part of our students’ daily life. We offer a broad and exciting curriculum with a host of learning opportunities that are offered to all students, regardless of need. If a student has expressed a preference to join the Catcote Cooks Crew to help to make our weekly TV-style cooking show, then they are more than welcome to do so, no matter what their physical or cognitive limitations may be.

Our PMLD learners following the ‘Sensory Explorers’ pathway, and use assistive technology every morning as an integral part of their Senseology morning routine. This includes using single switch communicator devices such as BigMacks to greet peers and staff, or share exciting news of their adventures. They use specialist switches to mark themselves present in the register as well as ChooseIT Maker 3 to answer questions on things such as the weather. As part of their daily routine, our Sensory Explorers take part in a vibrant and technology-rich sensory story. Here, the students use switches to allow them to tell a multimedia version of the story, with assistive technology forming the basis of many of the sensory props and cues. Examples include using a switch linked to an Inclusive Click-On 2 to power a hairdryer with voile attached to simulate a dragon’s fiery breath, using the Snapchat app on an iPad to turn the students into hideous witches or interacting with the ‘Fluid Simulation’ app to give the illusion of a bubbling cauldron!

Enterprise skills are a key feature at Catcote Futures and all students are given the opportunity to create and sell variety of items. This year our Sensory Explorers used the food mixer and microwave linked to a PowerLink 4 to create a range of animal treats such as dog and cat biscuits and bird feeders. The money raised from the venture paid for the class to visit Hartlepool’s Special Needs Support Group’s Sensory Room for an amazing day.

Catcote Futures has a vibrant media department, with assistive technology giving all students the opportunity to create a range of multimedia products. James is one of the top presenters of our Catcote Cooks TV show and has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This means his movement is limited to his head and his thumbs. Using micro switches linked to his Mac, James was able to use the Mac’s scanning feature with GarageBand to compose the catchy theme tune for the show. James has also used a variety of kitchen appliances linked to his switches to make everything from pancakes to toasties to scrambled eggs.

Daniel is a lifelong learner at Catcote Futures who has cerebral palsy which profoundly impedes both his movement and speech. Dan is very sociable and thoroughly enjoys working on reception and in the Bistro, our vibrant café. Dan uses an iTalk2 to both greet customers and thank them for their service. He can also use switches with the toaster and microwave to help prepare arrange meals and snacks for customers.

Dan presenting the news using a switch
Dan presenting the Catcote News

Daniel is also part of the Catcote News team, and has presented several episodes of the programme, using a BigMack Step by Step to deliver both the headlines and conduct interviews with staff and peers. When Daniel got a new personal assistant, he was part of the interview process, again, using a single switch communicator to ask questions and give feedback about the candidates.

Dylan has complex autism and follows our ‘Aiming High’ pathway, our semi-formal curriculum. Dylan has recently undertaken a weekly enterprise and ICT skills session called ‘Sweet Summer Treats.’ During this lesson, Dylan has used a blender and an ice cream maker linked to a switch to make the most marvellous banana ice cream. Dylan is pre-verbal but has been able to advertise his wares by visiting classes and delivering his sales pitch using a single switch communicator. Sales have been excellent and Dylan, who has always been a popular student, has seen his popularity rise yet further!

Chloe keeping cool

Photography is a popular lesson at Catcote Futures and students with physical difficulties are a valued member of the team. Students from across the college were able to use a Blue2 Switch, linked to an iPad Pro to take a range of beautiful photographs of several picturesque sites in Hartlepool. The photographs were then used by students in the reprographics department to create stunning A3 calendars, which have been sold for a tidy profit in our Catcote Metro shop in the town centre. Students were also able to use apps such as ‘Oil Painter’ and ‘Waterlogue’ to create realistic looking digital paintings from the photographs they had taken, to make arty variant versions of the calendars.

Of course, this is just the very tip of the iceberg. Every day Catcote Futures students are using assistive technology to take control, to make meaningful choices, to entertain, to communicate and interact in many ways, using a range of VOCAs, apps and devices, in an ever more natural way. Assistive technology truly enables our students to show the world just what they can do, and we couldn’t ask for more than that!

The author:

This piece was written for us by Pete Wells, Curriculum Manager at Catcote Futures. You may be interested in checking out Pete’s Sensory Stories podcast and his other interactive story-telling resources.

Assistive Technology:

Are you interested in learning more about how to use assistive technology effectively in your provision? Our TechAbility Conference – Raising Standards in Birmingham on the 21 November is aimed at doing exactly that and we are taking bookings now. You might also be interested in checking out our TechAbility resources, or watching one of our webinars.

Announcing the TechAbility Conference – Raising Standards

At Natspec, we know the impact that technology can have on student’s lives. It’s why we launched the TechAbility service, which aims to support providers to make effective use of assistive technology. The TechAbility Conference, happening on 21 November 2019 in Birmingham, aims to build on this by showcasing good practice and enabling you to raise the standard of assistive technology provision in your organisation.

Fil McIntyre, one of Natspec’s assistive technologists, said: “This conference is focussed on how Assistive Technology can be used to ensure learners reach their goals. All presentations are firmly based on practice and use, no matter what the technology. We are also excited to introduce the TechAbility Standards as a new way for you to measure your Assistive Technology provision”

Bookings for the conference are open now and we hope that as many of you as possible can join us.

group examining a piece of assistive technology

Keynote Speakers

We are delighted to announce Professor Janice Murray, Sal Cooke and Robert McLaren as our keynote speakers for this event.

Janice Murray is a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, specialising in Augmentative and Alternative Communication. From 2016-2019 Janice was the Chief Investigator on the NIHR funded research project ‘Identifying Appropriate Symbol Communication Aids for Children who are non-speaking: enhancing clinical decision making’.

Sal Cooke is a director of the Karten Network and a council member of the British Assistive Technology Association. Sal has previously worked with the Department for Education and Skills, JISC, and a number of schools and colleges. Currently, Sal is particularly interested in working with specialist colleges.

Robert McLaren is head of the industry technology and innovation team at Policy Connect, a think tank dedicated to improving people’s lives by influencing policy. Policy Connect administer the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology, which aims to facilitate engagement on assistive technology amongst Members of both Houses of Parliament, thereby raising the profile of AT and enabling it to help more people.


Assistive Technologist demonstrating the use of a tabletWe have several informative and educational workshops happening throughout the day that will help enhance your assistive technology provision. A wide variety of topics will be covered, with more workshops to be confirmed shortly. Already confirmed are:

Opportunities for Professional Development in Assistive Technology – Paul Doyle, Access Centre Manager, Hereward College & Matt Daly, Assistive Technologist, Seashell Trust

AT Solutions for People with Visual Impairment – Anna Janickyj, RNIB College

Identifying Appropriate Symbol Communication Aids; presentation of a research project – Janice Murray, Manchester Metropolitan University on behalf of the whole team and project collaborators (Barnsley Assistive Technology Service, the University of Leeds).

What Use is 3D Printing? – Matt Daly, Assistive Technologist, Royal College Seashell Trust

Implementing Assistive Technology: What can Specialist Colleges and General FE Colleges learn from each other? – Rohan Slaughter, Subject Specialist, JISC

Demystifying Switching – Hannah Golding, Assistive Technology Manager, Treloar College

Throughout the Day

All delegates will get the chance to discuss and share their opinions on current topics in assistive technology with our experts, and the day will end with a panel discussion where everyone can get involved.

There will also be lunchtime drop-in sessions and demonstrations, with the chance to get hands on with current assistive technology and see how to use it effectively.

An agenda for the day is now available and we hope to see you there.

Are Students at the Centre of our Technology Provision?

TechAbility Assistive Technologist Neil Beck uncovers key insights from visiting colleges and helping them use technology to improve outcomes for learners.

While working at TechAbility, a Natspec service that aims to help FE providers introduce and make effective use of assistive technology for their staff and learners, we have identified several key themes that have shaped our understanding of improving AT outcomes in SEND provision. We have had the chance to visit a number of colleges and centres; one of the interesting elements we’ve identified is the importance of “soft skills.” We were pleasantly surprised with the feedback we had for a webinar focusing on the staff who might be reluctant or nervous to use technology. So, how can we explore this further?

Soft skills and good communication are critical. I am reminded of a particular day when I had a short amount of time to check up on a student using dictation technology and introduce a grammar tool for two other students. With the limited time I had, my first instinct was to tell the dictation user what they were doing wrong and then quickly dive into showing the technology for the other two students without further interaction. What would the outcome have been?

Well the student using their voice would have likely felt demotivated and less likely to use the technology; it would have been a real shame not to celebrate and encourage a method they were making real progress with. For the other two students it would have been a missed opportunity to assess their understanding first and again, to make the use of technology a positive experience rather than a daunting one.

It’s why we should always choose to focus on the individual first, rather than the technology. Solutions that work on paper often hit serious barriers because we miss that person-centred approach.

Given that resilience and enjoyment are key factors in using technology effectively, how much should we be focusing on these elements? Should TechAbility deliver a webinar on these subjects? I’d love to hear your stories and what you think. Do get in touch and please feedback your thoughts on the current webinars available on the TechAbility webinar channel.

Neil Beck
Assistive Technologist

TechAbility Conference 2018: Summary

We’re delighted to have seen such a great turnout to the 2018 TechAbility Conference. Assistive Technologists and experts from throughout the country attended the event to hear the latest on using technology in specialist education provision.

Throughout the day, a phrase we heard repeatedly was:

“Why are there so many good sessions? I can’t choose which to go to!” 

A great piece of feedback to hear and we owe thanks to the speakers and delegates who made the day a success with their expertise and experience.  Topics were varied, but the common thread was the difference technology makes to enable access to education and leisure.  Virtual Reality, Voice Assistants, Exam Access, Tablets, Coding, Microsoft Office were just some of the topics covered.

But technology is no use without the means to deliver it.

In his keynote speech, Alistair McNaught peeled back the ‘Layers of accessible practice’ that are required to be in place to ensure meaningful results from any investment in accessible and inclusive practice.  Alistair highlighted the role of the Assistive Technologist – the key technology link between professionals from multiple disciplines. The Keynote went on to stress that importance of strategy when delivering inclusive practice:

“All of the “dabblers” and “enthusiasts” can only make a small impact until they are combined with strategy – only then does the value of investments rise well above the cost.”

Alistair McNaught

Over lunch, delegates worked to set the wheels in motion; talking to specialist exhibitors about their products and services or huddled in earnest conversation and networking.

The day closed with an Experts Panel who discussed good practice when implementing Assistive Technology. Panel members were drawn from specialist colleges, advisory services and the third sector. Some key points drawn out from the questions were:

  • To improve AT provision, ensure that high quality assessments take place which take into account context and future planning.
  • Consider the human element first and foremost when working with technology
  • Use the range of advice and support from experts in the field
  • Remember that you can’t know everything, so work together with other organisations

The day was a fitting testament to the TechAbility service and the outcomes we aim to achieve. The themes of the day had been identified through working closely with colleges and centres. If you’re interested in what TechAbility does and how you can take advantage, visit our website.


  • conference room full of people at TechAbility 2018
    "The range of talks was impressive and forward thinking."

View our Twitter moment to see all the interactions of the day.



Natspec delegates speak to TechAbility experts

The TechAbility stand at the Natspec Conference was busy for the whole two days, as staff from specialist colleges had their questions answered by Assistive Technologists Neil Beck and Fil McIntyre.  National experts Fil and Neil have just been appointed, funded by the Ian Karten Charitable Trust in partnership with Natspec’s TechAbility service. They talked to a range of delegates about how Assistive Technology could transform learning opportunities.  Many wanted to take up the opportunity of a visit to review their AT provision and discuss how TechAbility could support them and help their learners access the curriculum more easily.  Delegates were also keen to pick up some practical tips and to share how their learners were using technologies, from iPads to eye-gaze.

If you would like to discuss TechAbility or your Assistive Technology provision with Neil or Fil, please email them at

Read more from the conference:

A dynamic and collaborative sector

Asset based development: “Every individual has a gift to give”

“High Needs funding is under intolerable pressure” Dame Christine Lenehan

Shadow Minister sets out Labour’s vision for education and laments the failure of the SEND reforms: “A bureaucratic nightmare”

“Law trumps policy” ISPEA CEO Ali Fiddy navigates SEND and the law

Sir Richard Stilgoe speaks at conference dinner and guests celebrate success of Maths Week

Ofsted’s Nigel Evans says farewell to Natspec, challenging delegates to ask “will it make the boat go faster?”

Technology makes a difference

Technology impacts on all our lives, but for students with learning difficulties or disabilities, it can be truly life changing. It not only gives them a voice, independence, and autonomy; it also gives access to things that have become part of everyday life – the internet, social media, mobile phones.

Natspec’s Technology Advisory Group (TAG) has just published five case studies, demonstrating different aspects of the role technology now plays in the lives of students and showing how specialist colleges respond to ever developing opportunities. Four of the case studies cover aspects of the curriculum – independent living, recording progress through RARPA, work experience and social enterprise. The fifth outlines an approach to keeping the college ILT strategy up-to-date and embedded across all staff teams.

The TAG, working in partnership with Jisc, aims to promote accessibility and inclusion across the post-16 sector. Membership includes specialist and GFE colleges with a keen interest in making sure they use technology that really meets the needs and interests of students.

Beaumont’s case study on Independent Living shows how using environmental controls allows students much greater levels of independence, and allows them to control everyday equipment such as the TV, as well as heating and curtains

Royal National College for the Blind’s work on Supporting Outcomes outlines their approach to ensuring that their students are confident about using a wide range of technology – including setting up a café where students teach others to use technology

Treloar College wanted students to be fully engaged in RARPA, and found readily available technology to support them to record their own progress

National Star College used technology to support students on Work experience and enable them to carry out tasks efficiently and with confidence

Finally, Beaumont outlines its approach to reviewing and amending its ILT strategy

Technology project launched

Natspec has launched TechAbility, a new assistive technology and information technology (AT/IT) project.

It is in partnership with Jisc, the UK higher education, further education and skills sectors’ organisation for digital services and solutions. The service will be made available to all providers across the FE sector and aims to improve both IT systems and Assistive Technology to enable access to learning for all students with SEND. The ideas and service will support professionals and young people in all aspects of SEND provision: assessment, writing effective outcomes, planning programmes of study, helping students manage their work and record progress, collection of data, and giving young people the access to learning and communication that they need.

TechAbility brochure

Download a brochure about TechAbility

Brochure pdf,