Identifying dyslexia in higher education: Rose part II

‘there does appear to be a bit of a postcode lottery when it comes to offering support’

I thought I would try to explain the process of identifying specific learning difficulties/differences (SpLD)/dyslexia for readers who do not have an in-depth knowledge of how support systems work in HE in the UK. Many education providers face an uneasy challenge of identifying learners with additional support needs whilst struggling to provide properly funded support mechanisms.

The system that most HEPs have in the UK is that students are directed towards the disability service (or the name given to it in their place of study) to be ‘assessed’. Many students (and often their parents) start asking questions at open days, often stating that their school did some sort of assessment and it was used to give them extra time in exams or they were told they weren’t dyslexic but they’re still struggling. Or they come at some point in the academic year (either during Freshers’ week) or when they start struggling.

The second tranche of students usually come because of a referral from their academic department after they have handed in an essay. By the way, this is a reason not to panic in central services, as a steady stream of students emanating from academic colleagues is a sure sign that the message around available support is getting through.

Most central services staff will then do some sort of screening test which will involve an interview with the student to discuss their educational experiences and the reasons why they think they might be dyslexic and some sort of screening schedule (usually a list of questions with indicators). However, in my experience it is rare to turn a student down at that point: more usually they will show some kind of issue and be referred to an educational psychologist. This will either be someone who comes onto campus from an external organisation (I have used the Educational Guidance Service in the past) or they will be asked to visit a local centre such as those run by the British Dyslexia Association.

The assessment is usually around £300 which is a significant amount of money for students facing years’ of tuition fee repayments once they leave HE. Students must weigh up the costs of paying for this against the benefits of identification and all that comes with it in terms of self-understanding and support systems.

But many HEPs provide some financial support for this process. From a cursory search using Google (and contrasting HEPs towards the opposite ends of the Guardian league tables): at Oxford University support is available through the ‘SpLD fund’ – it appears from the information I could find that the costs will be met in full and up to a year after the assessment was carried out; and at York St John University it appears that the student must pay the full costs of the assessment (£284) and arrange their own appointment. (Please let me know if the information is incorrect for either of these examples).

So there does appear to be a bit of a postcode lottery when it comes to offering support and there is a question over the extent to which staff within HEPs act as street level bureaucrats when developing systems of support in the face of unlimited demands for their services. At the most inclusive end of the spectrum, are HEPs in which a screening is offered across all students. In some further education colleges for instance, an initial literacy test is administered to all students upon enrolment on a course of study which might funnel students to support for English language skills including support for SpLD. The opposite to this would be a provider where there is no financial support or limited referral processes.

When I first came into HE 20 years ago, there were limited resources in the UK and the institution I worked at offered limited help with the referral process. A fund was available, but it was means-tested, and the student was asked to go off campus to a centre and arrange their own assessment. It wouldn’t have been in my best interests in terms of student expectations if I’d screened everyone, because there weren’t the resources available to support those students. They were troubling times for me, professionally and ideologically!

The current context means that these systems are once again being opened up to funnelling because demands are ever-increasing (disabled student disclosure has risen hugely in the last 30 years), resources are being stretched (in England at least where the funding model is being ‘modernised’), and the model of central support is being questioned in order to move towards more inclusive teaching and learning. Some HEPs are already reducing the amount of funding they provide for assessments of SpLD or are outsourcing their support services to commercial operations. The question is how do HEPs maintain the balance between making support available on a mass basis with limited financial resources whilst ensuring that they abide by their legal obligations and commitment to social justice, widening participation and inclusion.

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