Free journal article available to download – while stocks last!

It seems I never publicised the availability of free download access to this article:

Mike Wray & Ann-Marie Houghton (2018) Implementing disability policy in teaching and learning contexts – shop floor constructivism or street level bureaucracy? Teaching in Higher Education. 

Only 50 free downloads are available so you’ll have to act quick.

 

 

Pioneering disability rights activist Michael Oliver dies

Just heard the sad news that Professor Michael Oliver has died. Oliver was the first person to articulate the social model of disability which underpins much of the approach to removing discrimination in the UK and its influence can be felt around the world in legislation which promotes the rights of disabled people. You can read about his philosophy in the Politics of Disablement and Understanding Disability: from theory to practice. This model is the reason why I refer to disabled people rather than people with disabilities: you can get a brief flavour of it in the DEMOS training materials I wrote many moons ago. If you don’t know who he is there is an interesting video about his life in higher education made by the University of Kent.

Have you achieved minimum inclusive teaching and learning standards in your organisation?

At the moment many institutions are working on defining what approach should be taken to inclusive teaching and learning and in doing so are benchmarking their existing practice. It’s more difficult to get started with this than you’d imagine because there are no agreed ways of working in HE which are considered to be standard. In schools differentiation and some kind of agreed learning plan* are fairly standard but this is not the case in UK HE organisations.

One of the problems you might encounter when embarking on this work is that the terms used to describe such exercises seem to have become mixed up. The terms base-level, baseline and benchmark seem to be used interchangeably so it’s worth considering what you mean by these ideas.

Benchmarking

Benchmarking is normally about comparing something to an existing standard or practice. You might benchmark how a department is responding to supporting disabled students by comparing what goes on in another department which is seen as being particularly successful in this regard. In businesses this is often done to compare performance against other companies who are more successful, to identify areas for improvement. In terms of inclusive teaching and learning we would be looking at practices which are seen as exemplary, such as ensuring that the majority of the materials you are going to use in a lecture are available for students to peruse 24-48 hours in advance. Or ensuring that your handouts are as accessible as possible – making sure that the print is legible using a recommended font type and size (such as those without serifs printed in at least 12 pt).

Base-level provision

Where we seem to have got confused in HE inclusion circles (in the UK at least) is with notions of base level support. This is probably because of the 1994 base-level document which was commissioned by HEFCE and HEFCW. If you’re not familiar with this publication I would recommend that you have a look at it because it really did pave the way for a lot of provision in the UK: some of the suggestions are still not implemented in some HEPs 25 years later.

The foreward to this document is confusing to say the least: it says that they were intending to set out minimum standards and by doing that to set a benchmark for comparison. Perhaps the benchmark was very low at the time but the recommendations contained within are quite radical, even now.

The executive summary doesn’t really help to elucidate matters: it says that the provision outlined refers to the ‘minimum level of support that each HEI should provide.’ It then says that these provisions were not intended as statements of best practice because it was perceived that they could be improved on.

Well they were right about being able to use them as a benchmark against which to compare your practice at the time but would you want to benchmark against minimum standards? There is a possibility these confusions were being used as rhetorical devices as is often seen in policy documents: policies are interpretable in multiple ways. If you’re giving the benefit of the doubt to the policy writers they are intended so that localised implementation is afforded flexibility – the cynical amongst you would see them as a lack of understanding of a policy context.

Baseline

Somewhere along the journey base level seems to have got mixed up with baseline. Which is an exercise which many HEPs in the UK are engaged in currently. They are measuring the practice within academic departments to gain some kind of baseline measure of their provision so that they can show progress. The inclusive teaching, learning and assessment tool contained within these pages is an example of how you might go about that. With it I tried to create an iterative process because I was cautious of creating an exercise which is seen as imposing standards from on high (top down implementation). I also wanted to create some sort of continuous improvement process so that departments had room to develop provision and had ways in which to define their own subject specific good practice. Another way of doing this is to outline benchmarks which exist in the sector (they can be from across education) and ask departments to measure their own performance against these. In this way you are offering best practice which academic departments can aspire to.

Here’s some suggestions (with additional questions from me and from within the detail of the document) from the original base-level guidance which you could benchmark against.

Do you have a well-publicised system of outlining students’ learning support needs with target times for completion and a code of practice which outlines how these are circulated? How are these used by academic departments? Do all academic staff see them? Do they input into them?

Does your HEI provide services to reflect the agreed needs within these documents? Do learning support plans get implemented? Do they reflect existing academic practice? Are they reviewed sufficiently?

Is a member of senior management given an assigned role in the implementation of inclusive provision? Do they have a role in dealing with unresolved issues that might affect the organisation of academic provision?

The guidance is perhaps most famous (can policy guidance be famous?) within the UK HE sector for outlining ‘minimum’ levels of staffing. Does your institution provide the following dedicated disability officer staffing levels?

Size of institution (students) Full time equivalent posts
Up to 3,000 0.5
5,000 1.0
10,000 2.0
15,000 3.0
20,000 4.0

* I make a distinction here with learning contracts which are prevalent in HE because they are usually a static statement of support needs rather than a reviewable document which tracks progress against learning targets.  Also, teaching staff very rarely have any input into them, unlike learning plans in schools.

 

Disabled Students’ Allowances effectiveness research

Short post on this one for now as I’m working away in Hong Kong. The Department for Education have just published commissioned research into disabled students’ take up and thoughts about Disabled Students’ Allowances.

You can download the report directly here or go to the related DfE website.

First comment is that I’m not sure they are measuring effectiveness, as the outcome measures are not directly related to that. They asked students how confident they felt about completing their course. That section of the report should really have been entitled ‘does DSA have an effect on how confident students feel about completing their course?’ not ‘Do DSAs and HEPs support have an impact on student retention and achievement?’  The only way of providing any objective evidence on retention and achievement is to look at outcome measures such as completion rates compared to non-disabled students and by comparing those who did claim the monies and use the support with those that didn’t (in terms of completion rates not of feelings about their completion likelihood). Also they have examined whether it has influenced the decision to attend HE but not used a comparison group of people who haven’t attended HE.

At first glance it seems somewhat flawed in terms of measuring what the headline title of the DfE webpage is but it could be the jetlag so I’ll give it another go and read it again when I’m less sleep deprived.

 

We are the university – local actors’ roles in policy implementation

I am always fascinated by discussion in HE around the notion of ‘the university’. When engaging in conversations on the subject of policy, there is usually some mention of how ‘the university’ controls aspects of the behaviour of people who work in those organisations. It is intriguing to consider how staff deal with a whole bricolage of policy devices which impinge into the workplace and therefore the classroom. I wonder if increasingly staff feel a sense of this because of the managerialist culture which is embedded within most government education policy.

Whilst policies and discourse around the commodification of education represent structural features of the context of teaching these are juxtaposed with attempts by teaching staff to maintain a sense of agency. Trowler, Saunders & Knight (2003) talk about back of the stage and under the stage discussions which take place in contrast to front of the stage conversations which occur in more ‘official’ fora. To get to the bottom of what occurs at the chalkface it is important to take into account these more unofficial discussions as they reflect a different understanding of policy implementation. Policy implementation which is underpinned through a top down lens is in danger of failing to understand these processes since it presents a mechanistic view of implementation.

Policy texts are interpreted by local actors, through individual’s interpretations and understandings of what policies mean and more collective understandings or commonly agreed ways of thinking about a policy issue. Policy is vernacularized or given localised meanings. For instance, during my research into how teaching staff implemented equality policies in one HEI I noticed that equality seemed to be equated to access for all, but this also meant not giving an advantage to some over others, which in turn led to misgivings about giving disabled students extra time. There was also consternation about students who were given specialist tuition, who then required adjustments to assessment processes, as this was seen as doubly compensating (doubly unfair to non-disabled students who couldn’t get any of this support). 

Thomson et al (2010) demonstrated the way in which policies (which can be described as under the umbrella of performativity) may be reproduced in ‘vernacularised’ ways by individual teachers through various teaching strategies which actually led to disengagement. The policy was translated into practice which was dependent on individual characteristics of the teachers (such as level of experience, ability to control bad behaviour etc.). Whilst they appeared to be producing the required policy outcomes in terms of government defined statistics, the outcome for the students was a lack of genuine engagement or recognition of individual motivations. For the one student it was reproducing patterns of educational disadvantage which was seen in her parents and close relatives.

Which leads me back to the notion of ‘the university’. Surely, we’re all part of what the university is. To students in particular, the majority of the interactions they have with ‘the university’ are through the teaching sessions they attend and the ways in which these are delivered, is influenced by the ways in which these staff vernacularise policy.  

 

The rise of mental health disclosure in HE – a case for moral panic?

It should be applauded that the minister for HE has cast a spotlight on the provision for a growing numbers of students who are identifying as having mental health difficulties. However, what isn’t clear is why a specific group of disabled students should gain so much ministerial attention and (moral) panic within headlines of major newspapers. I thought a good starting point might be an analysis of the extent of the problem by using freely available statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

This table shows the relative increase in disclosure of mental health difficulties (MHD) alongside disclosure of specific learning difficulties (SpLD)(dyslexia etc.), the overall increases in the numbers of students in general and the disclosure of all disabled students. (N.B. these are only first year UK domiciled students as the figures for all students are much harder to obtain from the HESA website – but they are a good enough sample to show the size of the effects).

What is clear is that there is cause for celebration in terms of the sector’s duty to implement the Equality Act 2010. For example, overall there has been almost a five-fold increase in the level of students who were willing to disclose some type of HESA-categorised disability. This is a great achievement for the UK in general as it is more than likely a combination of the increased awareness and acceptance of conditions such as dyslexia, autistic spectrum disorders and MHDs. Students are being diagnosed with these conditions much more frequently and are increasingly willing to tell someone about it.

Going back to the figures, in terms of SpLD there has been a 13-fold increase and for students with MHD an almost 19-fold increase. Maybe this is where the panic has come from? However, a very quick ‘eyeballing’ of the numbers shows that between 1994/95 and 2005/06 disclosure of SpLD increased five-fold which is a similar rate of increase as that which we have seen in the last 8 year period for MHD disclosure. However, there hasn’t been (or rather there wasn’t) a similar level of panic in the sector when the increases in dyslexia were identified. No minister for higher education accused the sector of failing students with SpLD as far as I am aware, although one has recently mentioned the importance of the support he received when he found out he was dyslexic at school. There are still twice as many students in HE with SpLDs than with MHD, but no headlines appearing about their support?

What is encouraging is that most universities are now well staffed to work with students who disclose MHD, often with a significant level of counselling resource and more often than not a multi-disciplinary team under the auspices of wellbeing. These resources have increasingly been bolstered by additional services provided through the NMH element of DSA funding through specialist mentoring provision. HE still seems to be the richer cousin compared to other levels of the education sector when it comes to resourcing support for SEN (a perverse quirk of the education system – fight your way into HE and get good support having contended with the continued post code lottery in schools and colleges). This was not the case for SpLD students in HE in 1994 when these statistics were first collected. There was very little provision for those students 25 years ago. Most universities now provide reasonable adjustments for SpLD students such as extra time for exams and assignments (some HEPs) and extended library loans, as well as utilising the NMH allowances from DSA to pay for specialist tuition. But it would be useful to see a comparison of the resources available for these two groups of students within HEPs.

Something else to think about: I haven’t analysed the figures for all the other categories of disability here, however policy makers ought to consider the statistics in a more holistic fashion before accusing the sector of failing to adequately support one particular group. The picture is much more nuanced that it might first appear. For example, it should be noted that there are only 936 more first year deaf students enrolling in 2016/17 (2080) than there were in 1994/95 (1144). Perhaps, not so surprising when you consider the rates at which deaf students gain 5 A*-C GCSEs. Should we be just as morally panicked? Maybe Sam Gyimah ought to tell Vice-Chancellors that prioritising these students is not negotiable?  Or maybe he should just be concerned about all disabled learners in all levels of the education sector?

Overseeing quality of support for disabled learners in higher education: where next?

If inclusive teaching and learning is to gain traction in UK HE, support for equality needs to be been given more than the cursory glance during quality assurance that it has been afforded in the past.

The QAA is to remain as the agency in the UK that will oversee ‘quality and assessment standards functions’. With a new ‘fully revised’ version of the UK Quality Code due to be published in late 2018 I thought it would be interesting to look back at the role which quality audit has taken in ensuring disabled students get an equitable experience of HE. It’s particularly important at the moment with such an emphasis being placed on inclusive teaching and learning and a move away from the DSA funded support for individual students.

In October 1999, the QAA published ‘Section 3: students with disabilities’ of its code of practice for quality assurance which audit teams were to use when ‘inspecting’ the provision of HEPs. The section contained 24 precepts which covered a whole range of facilities including precepts related to the delivery of academic programmes and examinations and assessments. An example of this being precept 10:

The delivery of programmes should take into account the needs of disabled people or, where appropriate, be adapted to accommodate their individual requirements. (QAA 1999, p. 13).

In 2005 Riddell and colleagues noted that academic staff were aware of the section of the code which focussed on disabled students and by 2007 observed that the section had been recognised as playing a role in the development of provision within HEIs. But teaching staff also expressed resentment at being told what to do by an external agency and for some, quality assurance processes overall are anathema to their understanding of the essence of HE provision.

A review  carried out by the QAA in 2009 of 129 of its institutional audits is somewhat equivocal in relation to the impact of section 3 of the code (QAA, 2009). Whilst it was reported that 95% of audit documents mentioned disabled students, it also noted that there is no requirement to report separately on support available and therefore there were no references made to this provision in sections within audits reports which related to good practice. Nor were there any recommendations for action made by the auditing teams (QAA, 2009). It is perhaps indicative of the approach taken to support for disabled students within institutional audits that the report mentions ‘only a small number of the institutional audit reports specifically identified features of good practice in the area of meeting the needs of students with disabilities in aspects of learning and teaching’ (QAA, 2009, p9).

My own experience of QAA audits and of other quality assurance processes in HEPs is that disabled student support is given a very cursory glance. Disability staff in HE are often pulled in at the last minute as an afterthought. I’m sure many readers will have experienced taking or making a phone call a week before such a process is due to take place, when the question ‘what are we doing to ensure disabled students are supported properly?’ is asked. This is despite quality assurance relating to equality issues being ignored for the previous 4 or 5 years since the same processes were undertaken.

In 2010, an updated version of the QAA section was published which contained precepts that reflected a more inclusive style and which paid heed to the social model of disability and the need to remove barriers to participation (QAA, 2010). However, in 2013 the specific section on disabled students was removed from the code and replaced with mentions within ‘chapter B4: enabling student development and achievement.’ This new chapter also amalgamated chapter 8 which was related to careers advice. These topics are odd bedfellows. At the same time references to disabled students were included within the chapters which specifically refer to teaching and learning and assessment and prior learning.

Whilst embedding references to disability within the other chapters of the code represents a more inclusive approach the move was perhaps questionable given the evidence from the QAA’s own review of audits. A more prudent approach might have been to ensure compliance to the existing separate section. It’s always a difficult balance to get right – being inclusive by embedding these issues throughout such processes whilst not losing the essence of what you are trying to achieve. In my opinion we went too far at that point in time.

Chapter B4 also pushed HEPs to ensure that they are pursuant of their obligations under existing legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. But there is very little joined up thinking around the EA2010 and the practice of teaching and learning. Once responsibility for this aspect of quality assurance is farmed out in such a way to other agencies or parts of the university which oversee equality policy, it gets lost with the myriad issues which academic departments are dealing with and becomes the bolt-on process which gets left as an afterthought.

If we are to make progress on inclusive teaching and learning during this next phase of quality assurance, it is imperative that it is embedded within the core processes of audit and that auditing teams and subsequent reports put it up front and central.