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.

How to re-define dyslexia in higher education – Rose report – part I

The Rose report (2009) drew together opinions from across the education debate to produce an informed direction for supporting dyslexia in the schools’ sector. Rarely discussed in HE circles, the report has many useful ideas to consider relating to the organisation of support.

It defines dyslexia:

  • as a difficulty in learning accurate and fluent word reading and spelling, underpinned by problems with phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speeds. Phonological awareness approaches to assist learners to improve reading are certainly a key focus of recent approaches in the UK such as those promoted by Maggie Snowling and others, but it’s very unlikely that this is something covered in 1-2-1 specialist tuition session in HE.
  • as a continuum, not a distinct category i.e. there are different levels of severity. By implication assessing someone ‘with’ dyslexia is a complex decision-making process. This an important point to consider for HE as the model is very much about a black and white distinction between someone being given the label of dyslexic vs non-dyslexic. In order to get DSA for example, the student needs to prove they are disabled i.e. dyslexic. This approach is problematic for a number of reasons –  many HEIs have taken this distinction as a means for deciding who can access exam arrangements and what arrangement should be put in place but Rose suggests that there is no sharp dividing line.
  • co-occurring – but these are not on their own markers of dyslexia, because there are a range of overlapping difficulties. For example, it is often suggested that organisational skills might be affected in students with dyslexia, but recent definitions such as in the Rose report suggest that phonological processing is the defining problem. It could be inferred that phonological processing difficulties and verbal memory might interfere with effective planning, but poor organisation is not of itself defining of dyslexia.

Early identification is also emphasised in the Rose report but it is still the case that a large number of students with dyslexia only get formally assessed when they enter HE. I’d estimate anecdotally the rate to be about 20-30%. This could be because they are able to survive at earlier levels of education, but as the level of literacy required gets more and more complex, problems become more acute. However, the story which many students relay, is that there was little support available.

A related problem about finding information on support available at university is also reported. A recent investigation undertaken by postgraduate psychology students at York University demonstrated further barriers which bureaucratic systems of policy implementation create within the sector. For example, whilst many HEPs insist on a post-16 educational psychologist’s report for exam adjustments a number of them don’t offer any support with paying for the report and some have even recently reduced the financial help available.