The market will drive out dyslexic students

New approach to provision of specialist support is threat to students’ effective participation, warns Harriet Cameron

December 17, 2015
Young man looking through metal fence

The UK government talks a lot about widening participation to higher education. Yet, in the recent spending review, it announced the axeing of the student opportunity funding provided to poor and disabled students, and subsequently confirmed that it will also reduce direct public support for disabled students via the Disabled Students’ Allowance.

Less well publicised is that the government is also pushing through changes to the provision of specialist support for dyslexic students that constitutes a threat to their effective participation in higher study.

In 2013-14, 5 per cent of UK students were registered as experiencing specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) like dyslexia, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. There are inconsistencies in definitions and diagnoses but it is clear that a significant proportion of students experience additional barriers to learning. Success in higher education still relies heavily on the ability to read and write according to academic conventions, to remember and reproduce knowledge in exams and to process information quickly in lectures and seminars, but these are precisely what students with SpLDs find difficult.

At present, such students are normally given regular access to specialist tutors. Such specialist teaching is complex and goes way beyond what funding bodies call “study skills”. Flourishing with dyslexia can be as much about believing you have a right to participate fully as it is about finding academic coping strategies, so the tutors engage the students in a process of critical reflection on their learning, helping them negotiate the obstacles with increasing confidence and independence.

To do this, the tutors need extensive training, regularly updated, in theories of disability and the psychological assessment of SpLDs. They need to be well versed in the theory and practice of specialist teaching and the relevant areas of law. They need to understand how mental health issues interact with SpLDs and how to respond to students in crisis. And they need to be closely connected to the higher education sector as a whole, enabling them to build working relationships with departments and individuals.

However, with a minimum of consultation and despite opposition from disability specialists, students and non-medical help providers, the government is pushing ahead with a “value for money” agenda that many argue pays inadequate attention to quality assurance. Specialist support, which was previously largely exempt from compulsory tendering rules, is being pushed into a highly marketised environment in which students will in essence be obliged to accept the cheapest quote or pay the difference. In such circumstances, the incentive to offer the bare minimum at the cheapest rate looms large, and the high quality support currently provided by institutions or affiliated organisations is unlikely to be the cheapest.

The government insists that quality assurance will be put in place, but this is likely to focus on narrow learning outcomes that fit neatly next to a tick box. Under threat is the chance for specialist tutors to work with students on those essential elements of participation that defy measurement.

Who would blame low-paid tutors hired by profit-seeking agencies for holding on to students whether they need further help or not? Who would blame them for attending to the tick boxes rather than to the complexity of interactions in disabling environments? And who would blame them for not addressing uncomfortable issues for fear that students might take their funding elsewhere?

Moreover, how many students would travel to visit an external tutor far from campus? Who would support the tutors in their professional development, and how would specialists nurture relationships with academics and departments when provision is divorced from those institutions? Who would check that providers have appropriate qualifications and experience? And who would ensure that no students slip through the system?

The challenges faced by students with SpLDs will only be further complicated by an ideological environment that puts a premium on self-help and autonomy. If a market-orientated approach is permitted to drive the reform of specialist support, the effect will be not to widen their participation but to narrow it.

Harriet Cameron is academic director for the SpLD Tutorial Service at the University of Sheffield.


Print headline: The narrow way

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Reader's comments (1)

I would never 'hold onto students whether they need further help or not' OR 'attend to tick boxes rather than to the complexity of interactions in disabling environments' and I WOULD address uncomfortable issues' Specialist SpLD tutor with 20 years practice and experience, thank you - oh and I am a freelance tutor who does not get paid when ill/sick/injured and does not get paid all through summer, who does not get paid if the student cancels a session (zero hour contracts do exist, yes really they do) who pays for her own CPD, licences and professional association memberships and professional indemnity etc. and would love to build up relationships in the working environment and be accepted as an ACADEMIC rather than sub contracted business support staff. I possess Level 7+ quals. and have to apply for benefits because of the way this 'industry' is run by all concerned.