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.

 

Implementing the Changes to the Disabled Students’ Allowances training

Glad to see colleagues from across the sector at yesterday’s training event run by Understanding ModernGov – HEinFE, HEIs, alternative providers etc. Broad range of topics discussed and debated. Interesting input from all presenters; legal, policy, models of support. Useful to re-visit some of the legal aspects the approach taken at De Montfort (which is flagged as an example of good practice) where several work streams are being taken forward – many of which are evident in a range of HEPs – so very positive to see. Some providers have opted out of DSA-QAG audit for NMH support. Notably Cambridge and Imperial but of interest today were a couple of ‘less well resourced’ HEPs opting out because of pragmatic reasons: not least the bureaucratic burden this places on already stretched resources.

The notion of complexity of support needs was mentioned again as it is in the recent Welsh Government commissioned report especially in reference to dyslexia. As I understand it the line which DfE/SLC (in HE that is) have taken is that dyslexia is a disability for DSA purposes and as they are following the Equality Act 2010 then the logical conclusion might be that it is a disability. However, it could be political expediency because of the DSA context and debates there have been recently within the sector. It doesn’t look like that’s the case in the schools sector: you could be dyslexic but not considered disabled because the support required is not ‘complex’ enough and/or your SpLD is ‘mild’. Not sure where the case law is on this but it would be interesting to see in terms of the debate around reasonable adjustments.

Also discussions about at what point the provider is legally obligated to provide reasonable adjustments for someone without the necessary paperwork to indicate an impairment. Anticipatory adjustments (such as inclusive teaching practice) should be in place. The potential for providers to pay for assessment/diagnosis (I use this term but apparently there doesn’t have to be a ‘diagnosis’ rather the emphasis is on the impact of a physical or mental impairment) as a reasonable adjustments was also suggested since legally providers are not allowed to charge for a reasonable adjustment.

Most HEPs are referring out to diagnosticians such as GPs and educational psychologists and providing financial help with paying for this, so whether this is seen as illegal is open to question. But then the idea of whether the provider could insist on paperwork was discussed. Taking a reasonable approach was mentioned. So with some learners it is very evident that there is an impairment but when 100+ students a year are walking in and saying they ‘think they might be dyslexic’ for instance; is it reasonable to put in place a DSA-equivalent support package until you find out for definite? If you can provide some level of support until you can get a clearer picture this may prove reasonable (perhaps!). Greg Boone from the Department for Education did say that re-assessment for SpLD students who are already diagnosed pre-16 was being reviewed. See this BBC story for more on this.

One of the policy instruments which complicates the picture in HE of course, is that reasonableness is partly based on other funding which is available, namely DSA for UK students. So in those cases it would likely be reasonable that you ask the students to make a claim for DSA at which stage they would need to provide confirmation of impairment to SFE/SLC. It is unlikely to be seen as reasonable that you provide a DSA-equivalent package for students who are eligible for, but refuse to apply for DSA.

Employment case law suggests that many cases are thrown out because a disability cannot be established so this is something which clearly is a contentious area and SLC now insist on paperwork which definitely establishes impairment as defined by the Equality Act before DSA will be disbursed – therefore not sure why that wouldn’t be the case for an HEP – i.e. not putting support in place until an EA2010 defined impairment is established. But it was suggested that SLC might be acting illegally*. As usual, in the area of disability and HE, there is very little case law to rely on to guide the sector and policy guidance is ambiguous (ECU guidance suggests that finances may not be an excuse for HEPs given the overall resources which are available but advice today seemed to suggest that it depends – on how big a provider you are and what else you have been doing in relation to support for disabled students).

*As a postscript to this, I read this morning in an archived NADP jiscmail posting, that SFE’s emphasis is now on demonstrating impact and for some students that have previous paperwork they might ask them to get more recent information that demonstrates impact. Which is in line with the Equality Act 2010.

Changes: turn and face the strange

The government’s recent focus on inclusive teaching and learning has left some staff in disability services playing a central role in facilitating changes to academic culture which they may not feel fully equipped to manage. One key aspect of taking on such a role is to consider models or theories of change in order to better understand how the process can be facilitated and to understand why change is often difficult to achieve.

Michael Fullan, a central figure in research and writing related to educational change, proposes one such model in his book ‘The challenge of change’. Here I discuss the 8 key principles mentioned in the book as they relate to the context of higher education.

Engaging moral purpose: staff need buy-in for any change and this can be fortified through appealing to the greater good.

There is quite a strong discourse in UK HE around the Equality Act/DDA but this legislative model only gets us so far and also can lead to moral panic amongst academic staff who are already faced with a multitude of change initiatives. However, most academic staff buy into the idea of inclusive practice and are led in their own teaching practice through moral purpose and values which generally relate to liberal notions of higher education. The notion of praxis (or value driven practice) is also worth considering here. It strikes me that an appeal to these values might prove more useful that using the stick of the legislation.

Alongside this bottom up approach, it is worth considering what the driving forces are within your HEI currently, such as student-led learning, employability or retention: although the warning here is that corporate strategies or top level organisational drivers do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the staff who they are supposed to serve..

Building capacity – the need to channel capacity through new knowledge of the subject area.

Try to connect academic staff through facilitating their engagement in resource development around inclusion. Traditional training workshops often fail to develop capacity and few academic staff attend. Fullan suggests shared knowledge generation and building capacity through development of policies and procedures. Avoid the writing policies in isolation as this can leave staff feeling that it is something which is being done to them rather than with them (Levin, 1998). Find ways to take a collaborative approach with staff across the institution.

Related to this is the need to consider staff resources and identifying who can drive this work forward.

Understanding the change process

These principles in themselves offer a way of understanding change and trying to ensure that the change process sets off in the right direction. I can also strongly advise Paul Trowler and colleagues’ work on change in higher education. Particularly, his seminal book ‘Academics responding to change’. Remember that change can be difficult to see over the short term especially in large organisations such as HEIs. I sometimes feel like I am dealing with the same issues I dealt with when I first came into HE 20 years ago and I have previously likened the journey to an Escher staircase: you feel like you are going round in circles but actually it might be better to view these processes more like a spiral staircase. You will encounter the same issues as you come to the same point on the 360 circle but you need to convince your brain that you are moving upwards!

Developing cultures for learning – tap into learning communities amongst academic staff.

‘Successful change involves learning during implementation’a powerful way to achieve this is to learn from peers. How can you get academic staff who are already setting a good example to pass on that knowledge to colleagues? Fullan et al highlight that the knowledge gained needs to involve putting it into action: pockets of excellence will not be sufficient.

Developing cultures of evaluation

You need to carefully evaluate the change project in the post-DSA modernisation world this requires evaluating changes to teaching and learning practice. Fullan et al suggest a range of ways to evaluate. One option, could be through accountability data which is being used externally such as HESA enrolments or degree attainment. However, it is recommended for there to be more of an emphasis on faculty-based self-appraisal for which a framework (link to ILTAF) to evaluate and action plan could be provided. It is also important to note that some inclusive practice does not currently have sufficient evidence to demonstrate effectiveness – nevertheless, this need not mean it shouldn’t be attempted. The student voice can also be used as a powerful driver in evaluation efforts.

Focusing on leadership for change

Fullan et al focus on the capacity building nature of leadership. In our context this might be facilitating academic staff to take responsibility for innovation in this area. Leadership for this change requires understanding how the university might facilitate this rather than the disability office. Perhaps this could be undertaken through an existing network of academic liaison staff via the Learning and Teaching Development Unit. Perhaps disability services staff can collaborate with learning and teaching colleagues as part of a wider shared endeavour.

Fostering coherence making

There are likely to be constant change and policy implementation initiatives within each HEI therefore it is important to understand how the initiative fits in with other developments. They may act as drivers for the change to take place or you may need to explore how inclusive teaching and learning interconnects with these change initiatives.

Cultivating tri-level development

Here Fullan et al focus on changing the broader context but for this blogpost the context is your HEI. He emphasises that educational initiatives should not just focus on changing individuals but should aim for broader change. There must be development across subject disciplines for instance or within academic departments and within the organisation for successful change to occur.  Addressing the challenges arising from the DSA changes involves ensuring that academic colleagues are exploring what inclusion means for their practice and is situated within their local contexts. It would be unlikely in such a model that staff would be ‘told’ that they should abide by a baseline number of compensatory actions for instance as suggested by the BIS government checklist  (which was published as part of a draft practitioner guidance document by the SLC) .

What theory or model of change are you currently following? Do you even have one? Are you working on the basis of top down policy and management influence or are you working across the organisation through bottom up processes?

Fullan, M., Cuttress, C., and Kilcher, A. (2009) 8 forces for leaders of change in The challenge of change: start school improvement now! 2nd edition, M. Fullan (editor). Corwin, Thousand Oaks, California.

Levin, B. (1998) An epidemic of education policy: (what) can we learn from each other? Comparative Education, 34 (2), pp. 131 – 141.

 

What’s in a name?

When considering 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