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Supporting disabled learners to realise their potential: improving disabled learners’ progression through learning in colleges

Recent ECU research highlights that disabled learners in colleges are not progressing as well through SCQF learning levels as non-disabled learners. 

ECU commissioned Lead Scotland to:

  • find out why disabled learners are not progressing through learning levels as well as non-disabled learners
  • identify the learning barriers that disabled college learners experience
  • develop recommendations to support colleges in the development of relevant policy and practice to effectively support disabled learners.

Lead Scotland conducted a survey for learners, and a separate survey for parents/carers. 141 learners and 107 parents/carers responded to the surveys.

Follow-up interviews were conducted with 14 parents/carers and 15 learners to allow them to discuss their experiences in more details. Two parents also took part in a focus group discussion.

A telephone interview was also conducted with PAMIS (a voluntary sector organisation working with people with profound and multiple learning disabilities and their families). Written comments from the Head Teacher of a special school, and Share Scotland (a voluntary sector organisation operating the ‘Moving on Transition Service’) were also received.

The full report can be found here.

Key recommendations

Lead Scotland highlighted a range of key recommendations arising from the research

Recommendations for colleges:

Offer a broad range of courses at all SCQF levels which meet the needs and aspirations of disabled learners >

“If the children don't learn the way the college teaches, the college should teach the way the children learn”. Parent

Although some learners were keen to progress to the next level, some colleges did not have any appropriate provision.

This was a particular problem for students taking supported programmes such as ‘Life Skills’ or ‘Independent Living’, many of whom were unable to choose other courses or programmes as they were unable to take part in mainstream learning.  While some learners repeated their previous course, others decided to leave college.

“I have serious concerns about the withdrawal of the supported Towards Independence course for the more complex young people. I feel it is discriminatory as it is the only course available to those with high support needs… When I see what a positive experience this has been for my son, the course's withdrawal offers them even less choices and less chances in what is already a narrow choice of options”. Parent

Parents of learners with complex needs suggested that colleges should offer a greater range of courses for such learners as there are often very little (or no) courses for them to move on to.  There appear to be a limited range of courses at SCQF level 3. Feedback from Share Scotland suggested that for some courses, the jump onto the next learning level may be too big for some learners.  They believe that this is because there are few appropriate courses at SCQF levels 3 and 4, resulting in many learners skipping a level/s and therefore struggling on the higher level course, and limited progression routes.

“No other options were available. I feel now that my son was very "lucky" to have been able to access the two year course…. The College is about to withdraw the course completely at the end of this academic year - with nothing available for learners with significant additional support needs.” Parent

Share Scotland also reported working with learners who had been placed on courses which were a poor match for their individual skills/abilities.  They believed this could be due to a lack of knowledge of the learner or lack of appropriate course options, and difference of opinion on the suitability of a particular learner for a specific course (including lack of awareness of the impact of the learner’s impairment).

Put the learner at the centre of all processes and decisions >

This includes asking learners about the barriers they are experiencing, what works best for them as an individual, and listening to their concerns along the way.

 “Talk and listen to the students themselves, we want to learn and you can help us”. Learner

“Learners with Complex needs or their parents should have more involvement in choosing what they learn at college based on what interests them allowing them the same opportunities as other learners”.

“I would suggest that support staff actually listen to the ways that my disabilities affect my learning, not just come to their own conclusions and then recommend a support plan that isn't really meeting my needs. Teaching staff should also actually look at the support plans and arrange support according to that rather than on their own opinions about what you need”.  Learner

Recognise that parents often have a key role to play >

Some parents felt that it was difficult to liaise with college staff as they believed that “they knew best”, and suggested there needed to be more professional humility and an understanding that parents are usually the primary expert regarding their own child’s needs.

“Professionals should be able to recognise that parents have a key part to play”.

Some parents accepted that there is a need for learners to become more independent, but felt that the additional barriers which disabled learners often experience (in comparison with non-disabled learners) increased their need for parental support.

“I do think one of the areas of difficulty is that when young people over 18 are expected to speak and act for themselves but are still not really fully independent. I want my son to be independent but it didn't just arrive like magic on his 18th birthday! It's a process and I think the parents should still be involved if possible into young adulthood”. Parent

Ensure that all teaching and support staff undertake regular training >

“The support was completely inadequate, there was no knowledge of how her autism would impact her studies” Parent

“Disabled student advisers are great, but teaching staff often don’t believe students’ needs are as complex as they say they are”. Learner

“There is a lack of specialist training and understanding amongst college staff as to how best to support many of the students in their care, thus leading to a skewed version of individuals’ needs”. Share Scotland

Many impairments affect learners in very different ways, and respondents therefore felt it was very important for staff to undertake training to help provide a fuller understanding of a wide range of impairments and the various support measures they can put in place to help learners overcome any barriers.

Many also pointed out that it was important for staff to be more aware of the impact their impairment had on other aspects of their lives, which in turn affect their learning needs.

“For students on the Autistic spectrum, lecturers should be aware of how much distress socially-intensive tasks, such as going around asking people to fill in permission forms for photography, can cause”. Learner

“We have additional issues to contend with over and above those of able bodied or non-disabled students. We do not expect easier assignments on modules but more consideration needs to be given for some of these issues when being criticised during assignment marking. It does not matter how many times you read a piece of work but if you only get 3 or 4 hours sleep a night mistakes tend to creep in”. Learner

Ensure that all disabled learners have access to a named staff member >

“Students need one person they can deal with – it’s too difficult dealing with 10 teachers, IT staff, department heads, support staff, etc”. Parent

“Students advisers didn’t have much time to speak/listen to me.  I really needed someone to talk to.  Often a 10am appointment next Tuesday isn’t good enough”. Learner

Some learners said they felt they would benefit from either a named staff person/key worker to talk to about any aspect of their support needs, or support from other students.

Suggestions included disabled student support/discussion groups, student mentors/buddies or drop-in centres (specifically for disabled learners) to allow them to ask questions on any aspect of college support, and/or where to access information from other agencies in relation to other support needs.

“It would be nice to have a student mentor, someone who has done the course and who you could ask questions of or get some support from, my college doesn't have a student union, and most of this course is done on-line, so I'm on my own a lot, and don't feel particularly confident about what I'm doing, I'd appreciate someone to talk to”. Learner

Aim to anticipate a wide range of adjustments while still responding to individual requests >

Respondents felt that while many colleges were good at anticipating physical adjustments (such as building design, ramps, etc.), most adjustments relating to learning support were reactive. A common suggestion was therefore that college staff should anticipate the types of adjustments that disabled learners are likely to need, while still taking account of the individual needs of each learner.

Suggestions for improvement included:

  • assessment and learning materials available in a wide range of formats, including audio
  • using a minimum font size of 14 for all written materials
  • using Kindles for downloading books
  • providing course materials and reading lists at least 4 weeks before the course start date
  • extra time for assignment submission
  • clear instructions of course start times and location
  • powerpoints and class handouts available at the start of each class
  • classroom assistants and IT staff who can provide 1-1 support
  • providing a quiet room for students to take a break and/or study in a smaller group
  • more support staff to allow them to spend more time on needs assessments, providing advice, and training students how to use equipment
  • general IT support to allow learners to become more digitally confident

A number of learners reported that they did not receive an assessment of their needs until after the course had started.  They therefore recommended that colleges begin the needs assessment process and meet with learners to discuss their support arrangements much earlier.

“The college did not offer any support until weeks after the course had started, I had to find out how to get support, despite having declared my disability on my application and on enrolment.  Support should have been made available immediately. The support I did get was too late and I am now leaving my course”. Learner

Put in place a wide range of pre-entry support measures >

Many learners received general advice and guidance to prepare or college from a range of organisations. This included: discussing learning options, the support infrastructure and help to complete applications and prepare for college interviews.

Others met with college staff who provided information about the college learning environment, what kind of support was available and familiarisation visits at the college campus.  Some older learners received help to “get their education up to scratch again” in preparation for returning to learning after a break.

An ongoing trend throughout the research was the dedication and supportiveness of individual staff members as a key factor in successful transitions.  This primarily included staff working in learning support and guidance roles, as well as teaching staff (in both schools and colleges).

“Secondary school learning support teacher who went over and above her duty to ensure she got all help possible not always with school support.” Parent

“Lifestyle and wellbeing classes could be offered to help disabled people adapt to change and develop their confidence and skills as a pre-entry requirement during the summer so that they are better equipped with knowledge, confidence and coping strategies when things get too stressful”. Parent

Aim to develop and improve partnership working with relevant agencies >

While colleges are responsible for meeting the learning needs of their students, many also require support from local authority social work departments to meet other needs.  This includes personal care support (e.g. help going to the toilet, preparing and eating meals, etc.) and help with day-to-day needs (e.g. transport, getting around, etc.) from local authority social work departments, or support from health boards to meet their healthcare needs (e.g. help taking medication).

Many learners told us that without such support it can often be very difficult (or impossible) to access or remain in college.  The research highlighted learners’ (and parents’) confusion around who should be providing transport, and arrangements often vary between different regions.  While both colleges and social work departments are able to provide support with transport, in many cases both cite financial reasons for not being able to provide support and often refer learners to the other agency.  In some areas, both colleges and social work may provide support with transport, whereas in other areas some learners struggle to get support from either agency.

“Without social work providing door-to-door transport then my son would not have been able to attend the course at all.  The college were very unhelpful and unsympathetic when talking about this matter.  All they kept saying was there was no budget for this type of care.” Parent

Recommendations for the Scottish Government / Scottish Funding Council

Clarify the roles and responsibilities of all agencies involved in support >

See recommendations for colleges

Improve financial support for disabled learners >

“I would like to continue studying but there are a number of financial barriers and restrictions that make it difficult for me to progress”. Learner

Some learners told us that that financial problems made it difficult for them to remain at college, including difficulties securing funding for learning or day-to-day needs, additional costs associated with their impairment or illness, and welfare benefits being reduced or removed.

Many highlighted the additional stress many disabled learners experience due to having their benefits subject to review at any time.  Others had to take time off their studies due to illness and therefore experienced additional difficulties relating to additional costs and arranging new financial support packages.

Learners told us that difficulties with general living costs had a significant impact on their college experience.  One learner pointed that while many learners experience financial difficulties, disabled learners often don’t have the luxury of being able to work while they were studying to top up their income.  Others experienced problems with the additional costs of course materials and equipment on certain courses.

Broaden the definition of ‘positive outcomes’ >

Many respondents felt that colleges were too focused on learners’ progression to further learning or employment, and didn’t take sufficient account of learners’ achievements in other areas.  This was a particular concern for learners with learning disabilities and those with complex needs.

“For some people with learning disabilities, the word progress means an academic achievement or qualification which is beyond their ability. I would like to see a different type of course being more available that enhances quality of life and gives a bit of variety of subject to suit individual interests and enhance social interaction”.

“I felt college education wasn't tailored to student's capacities when there was a disability present. The student had to fit what was offered which just doesn't work for someone like my son. It was a very disappointing experience”. Parent

Identify and highlight examples of good practice >