We (Crossbow) exhibited at the TESSEN show back in October. It’s by far and away our favourite SEN event, with two full days of seminar programmes and many suppliers like ourselves displaying their wares and talking to teachers, parents, and others with an interest in all things SEND. We have a particularly soft spot for the show since we, basically, launched Crossbow Education there in 1993: just myself, my wife Anne, and five card games that I had developed with the dyslexic students I taught. If there were a long service medal for participation in the show we would probably win it: we have attended every one since 1993 and have seen it go through three separate incarnations. It was a big hole in the calendar when the 2020 show was cancelled due to Covid.
So when October 2021 came along and the show was live again, we were excited to be going back. It was a relatively muted affair though, by contrast to previous shows – the footfall was down by at least 40%, for various Covid-related reasons, and consequently we all felt the draft commercially in terms of reduced orders. Nevertheless, we all agreed as exhibitors that it was “great to be back” and to be actually engaging face-to-face again with the people that we supply and serve, and we accepted the financial hit for the sake of “getting the show on the road” again. It’s an important event in the SEN calendar.
However, my over-riding feelings after the show were of sadness. I wasn’t sad because our sales were down on previous shows, because we weren’t expecting anything else; but I was saddened because of what had happened to the event itself. The TESSEN show – or Special Needs London, as it used to be called, was once a bustling marketplace of publishers and resource suppliers all competing for the attention of the 5,000 or so SEN specialists who were looking for the best materials to meet their widely ranging needs. If you were launching a new SEN product or company it was the place to be. Now it was quiet: not just because of the relative lack of people, but because of the lack of actual “stuff” on display, creating a mix of colours and textures that added to the dynamic “marketplace” feel of the event.
One of my long-standing friends in the industry is the MD of the SEN publishing house Learning Materials Ltd. He wasn’t there this year because he’d had an injury, but it wasn’t just his company that was missing, but actual learning materials – if materials are resources that children and teachers actually get their hands on. Of over 100 companies that were exhibiting at the show in October, only about 15 actually provided tangible resources that supported children with SEND.
What were all the others? Mostly they were online services, online platforms, online programmes, online resources… TESSEN used to be the SEN High Street of Education Town. Now nearly all the shops have shut their doors and either disappeared or gone online, and the marketplace has become a parade of featureless booths and pop-up banners. Of course Covid and schools lockdown has contributed vastly to the proliferation of digital resources now available to schoolchildren. But before Covid things were already going that way, and EdTech has been the Belle of the Ball for a few years now. And my point is this: what has happened to multisensory teaching? Where are VAK – especially K – and multiple intelligences?
When I started teaching dyslexic children in 1988 we were learning that a multisensory approach was the best way of supporting the needs of dyslexic learners, and it soon became apparent that all children benefitted from engaging all their senses in the learning process. Where dyslexia teaching led, mainstream followed. But if the decline in availability of multisensory teaching resources at the TESSEN Show is more than just a Covid-related blip, I would say that it represents a worrying trend. A recent study in Canada examined the associations between screen-time and externalizing behaviour (e.g. inattention and aggression) for 2,427 families of pre-school children. The results of the study indicated that over 95% of the children had access to screen time. For those who participated in screen time for over two hours a day as opposed to less than 30 minutes, it was found that they were seven times more likely to exhibit “externalising” behavioural problems such as inattention, and seven times more likely to meet the criteria for Attention Deficit Disorder (Tamana et al, 2019)
So for the children who struggle most to pay attention in lessons, those with SEND are increasingly fed a diet of activities that increase their inattentiveness. The Belle of the Ball is actually wearing the emperor’s new clothes, and it’s time that educators took their heads out of the cloud.