Departmental staff perceptions of centrally organised disability support services

What do academic staff think about in-class support for disabled students? How do staff in university faculties and department respond to suggestions for changes to practice which are proposed by staff in central services?

Most university disability personnel are based within a centrally located student support service and play a significant role in facilitating a barrier free education for disabled students. But how do staff in academic faculties and departments view this support and how do they respond to recommendations made from the centre? What do these staff think about support in the form of specialist staff who they encounter in the classroom often without any prior knowledge that this type of support was about to appear alongside a disabled student? I explore these issues in a new paper which has been accepted for publication by a peer -reviewed journal and which you can download in a pre-print version here.

As with most of the practice in this area of interest there is scant research which examines these issues. What research there is, points to somewhat fragile relationships between academic departments and central services. For instance, Kendall (2018) suggested that academic staff are ambivalent towards support provided centrally and that they have negative attitudes towards centrally produced support plans. Respondents in Kendall’s study also raised questions about specialist tuition. In another study, departmental staff felt that more could be done for disabled students and that they were left with too much responsibility for their support (Cameron & Nunkoosing, 2012).

We should, of course, be wary of evidence from two studies but, these insights from academic departments offer a window into what disconnects might arise, in loosely coupled organisations,  between the good intentions of central support and the staff in faculties who are intended to implement practice. Everyone, is working towards the same goal: students want to do the best they can without having to deal with unnecessary barriers; central services want to provide support which can help to remove these barriers; and academic staff want their students to do the best they can and try their upmost to facilitate learning.

One of the mechanisms for providing inclusive classrooms in HE is the use of non-medical helpers (NMH). In other parts of the education system NMHs are usually referred to as teaching assistants (TAs) or learning support assistants. You might be forgiven for thinking that any additional resources afforded to teachers would benefit learners but this is not necessarily the case with TAs. In some contexts, their impact can be detrimental and this can be particularly problematic for disabled learners. The research does show that TAs can reduce stress for teachers by providing additional resources and with the right training and time to liaise on targeted provision with teachers, they can have a positive effect on learning outcomes (*see below for further resources).

My research in HE demonstrates that similar issues can occur. Teaching staff were unclear on the purposes of in-class and out of class support which is provided by central services. Unfortunately, there was evidence to suggest that these support mechanisms did mitigate against inclusive practice since departmental staff defer to specialists in supporting disabled learners. Staff think along the lines of ‘this student is being supported by central services so I don’t need to do anything’. Paradoxically, when recommendations were made for changes to classroom practice tensions arose, this was despite the fact that teaching staff generally do not see themselves as experts in this area.

Solutions to this problem centre around better communication between central services and academic departments but isn’t this ever the case? I think more effective ways of solving such issues lie in embedding practice within academic departments. This could be done through employing disability coordinators linked to subject areas or giving responsibility to staff within the Faculty. Faculty staff also need to play a bigger role in developing inclusive solutions so that Learning Support Plans which contain recommendations for changes to teaching practice can be better aligned to the day-to-day reality of the lecture/seminar room.

*If you are interested in the effectiveness and the effects on classroom practice of teaching assistants in schools there are two useful international reviews available: one from the OECD and another by Sharma and Salend.

Additionally, the DISS project was a large scale study carried out by the Institute of Education in the UK, the findings of which, were disseminated through various outputs including this one at the EEF.

What’s in a name?

When choosing a title for a disability service there are a number of practical, political, and organisational issues which need to be considered. Ultimately, your decision may end up being swayed by more pragmatic reasoning but here’s what my thinking was influenced by.

Disability services in higher education are known by a variety of names but is it time to rethink what you call your team? In my last job at York St John University I took the opportunity to merge together the disability service, the dyslexia team and the study development team under the umbrella of ‘learning support’.  It was a great chance to use a term which I felt was more inclusive and also enabled us to develop services which were more streamlined.

At York St John, when I changed the name of the overarching service the three individual teams kept their titles but it meant that when advertising outwardly to our students and potential applicants, we could be more inclusive. We could also tweak our message depending on the audience. In the prospectus it was important to advertise our generic study development team to all students including disabled students, but separately to the disability and dyslexia services. Similarly, it was important that we could coordinate services to disabled students and have flexibility of provision for students who might be in limbo whilst applying for DSA. It meant that we weren’t working in silos and that students were given a seamless service.

It is worth considering that organisationally groups of staff and students may refer to your services in entirely different ways to the organisational chart which is on the noticeboard in your office. These references will be linked to the names which were given to services in the previous education providers they worked or studied in, to historical terms which your services were referred to and to other entirely random factors such as what building they are housed in. When names are changed it takes many years for the whole university to find out this is the case and adopt the new name of the service. It is unlikely that staff will stop referring to the wellbeing teams of UK universities as the counselling service any time soon, as this is what they have always been called. I still had staff referring students to ‘writing support’ 7 years after it had changed its name to the Study Development Team! At York St John it was much easier to speak to students about where student services were based i.e. go to ‘Holgate’ rather than trying to explain the organisational structure and geographical location of various teams.

In many ways it doesn’t really matter to students and other staff in your organisation what you are known as in the back offices of the university, as long as they know where to go to and signpost to, when your services are required. It does matter therefore, what students and colleagues are likely to come searching ‘for’ and what they will ask for at the university’s enquiry desks. One of my primary reasons for choosing the name Learning Support Team was that this title is variously used in the further education sector, which many of our students would be transitioning from. That is, in further education colleges in the UK ’learning support’ is the term that is generally used for the service which works with disabled students and learners with learning difficulties. Therefore, if students had received support from these services previously it is unlikely that they would go looking for ‘disability services’ when browsing a university website or during a visit day. They may also feel quite embarrassed visiting a ‘disability stand’ at an open day.

In the schools sector there is of course a culture of ‘special educational needs (SEN)’ after decades of legislation however, terminology is by no means static in this arena. Whilst ‘disability’ is being used in terminology because of the DDA (think SENDA), the overall direction of travel is towards inclusion and related terminology (in part because of the merging together of inclusion legislation i.e. the Equality Act 2010). Increasingly, SEN provision is changing its name to study support or inclusion services. Yes, most schools will have an SEN policy but many will have an ‘inclusion’ department. And future learners and therefore your potential students will come through waving education, health and care plans (EHCPs).

Recently, colleagues at Roehampton University argued that we shouldn’t drop the use of the word disability from our titles. Worringly, using ‘inclusive’ as a term to describe services is being linked to cutting services. Due to changes to DSA policy most HEIs face difficult decisions in deciding on the most effective ways in which to deliver services.  For example, DSA funding has been cut for NMH bands 1&2 and organisations need to find a way of back filling this provision. Some HEIs have implemented like for like services, others are seeking alternative ways of providing support such as lecture capture. No doubt because of resource issues, some may have to cut staffing to fund other provision. Similarly, HEIs are seeking ways to develop inclusive teaching and learning which will require huge changes in organisational culture.

Whilst all this change takes place, it is clearly important to recognise disabled peoples’ experience of impairment and to celebrate disability. However, I am not arguing here for a grand theory of disability which applies in all situations.  What I am arguing for is a way of providing services which are as inclusive as possible. When ‘disability services’ are working with large numbers of learners who do not identify with the term, it is hard to justify continuing to use it, and related terminology. For instance, if your services work with students with dyslexia and mental health difficulties – calling them the disability service immediately ostracises a large part of the student constituency.

One last thought, disability services still play a vital role within universities in the UK, however, as we move towards inclusion we need to begin to use terms which are going to move organisational culture forward. We have come a long way since the days of the disability team being based in the Portakabin behind the sports hall but we will always be seen as add on as long as we remain in a student services deficit way of thinking. Disability services are still viewed as being the place to send students when they have a ‘problem’ which needs to be fixed. But they should be a key aspect of the triangle of support which I have proposed previously. In liaison with the students and their families, inclusive teaching and learning staff and the disability service, provision is developed. This is pretty much the model in the rest of the sector i.e. in schools and in FE where SENCOs play a vital teaching and learning role and extend across the gap between SEN support and the classroom and one which I feel will develop in HE in decades to come.

Is it time for you to sit down with your team and management and most importantly potential students and find out what their views are on the service name? This may require re-structuring service provision and a re-consideration of what you are offering.

Some ideas for names. If you know of other services which deserve a mention please let me know:

Aston University

Manchester Metropolitan University : I provided this link at MMU because for many years the disability service was under the auspices of ‘Learner Development’ but this seems to have disappeared? If you are at MMU and know why this has changed maybe you could let me know?

Millthorpe School, York

Belper School

Belper School #2

The Manchester College