How accessible is university for learners with SEND?

Tuesday 27 September 2022, Widening access and participation

by Alex Grady Head of Education and Whole School SEND, nasen

How accessible is university for learners with SEND?

Alex Grady Head of Education and Whole School SEND, nasen

What do you understand by ‘SEND’ or ‘special educational needs and disabilities’? There can be an assumption (probably an unconscious one) that learners with SEND will not be on a pathway to higher education, as they have ‘learning difficulties’. This is a misconception. There are many reasons why a young person is on the SEND register, many of which should not and do not mean that they don’t have the academic potential to access HE.

Take the young person with autism, who achieves highly in their chosen subjects but may find social interaction and change or transition challenging, and so is anxious about moving on to HE and doesn’t apply. Or the young person with a physical disability who communicates via eye gaze technology, but has exceptional ability in science (Stephen Hawking, anyone?). How about the young person who has recently been identified with dyslexia, which helps to explain why they have struggled to get their essays in on time – their potential in history should not be curtailed by their difficulties with spelling. There are many more examples I could cite from across the four ‘broad areas of need’ as described in the SEND Code of Practice (2015): communication and interaction, cognition and learning, social, emotional and mental health difficulties and sensory and/or physical needs.

Once students get to university, most are extremely well set up to support those with disabilities but getting there in the first place can be a real challenge.

The point is, it is up to those of us working within schools, FE and HE to ensure that we are making the application and transition to university as accessible as possible for all those young people with the desire and the potential to go, and to be open-minded about who this might be.

We (nasen, under the Universal SEND Services programme, funded by the Department for Education; convene regular meetings of a Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG), to inform our work, which through this programme is across schools and FE colleges. We work with our strategic partners the Education and Training Foundation and the Autism Education Trust to support the education workforce to identify and meet the needs of children and young people up to the age of 25 with SEND. At the last YPAG meeting a couple of weeks ago, one of the main topics of discussion was around ‘transitions’ and we heard some powerful feedback from those young people with SEND who are currently attending university.

The young people talked about the lack of information in Y12 and Y13 about what support universities offer to ‘disabled’ students (note the difference in language too, which adds to the confusion and lack of understanding); they felt strongly that Y12 pupils in particular need more information about this, as it would really help in deciding whether to apply at all and if so, to where. Schools don’t always know enough about which universities are particularly accessible to learners with SEND and so find it hard to advise on this. There was a lack of knowledge around the Disabled Students’ Allowance and one student commented that they didn’t know this existed until they were in second year.

This relates to am overarching point made by the young people – there are so many things you are expected to know about before you apply, during the application process and once you start at uni and these are often not explained early enough, simply enough and often enough. Finding out and doing things early and quickly makes a huge difference to confidence and access.

There is learning here for both schools/colleges and universities; transition from one to the other is the responsibility of both, and this is particularly important where a young person has SEND.

Schools (and this is about the SENCO and the UCAS lead at the school talking to each other too): talk to pupils with SEND as early as possible about the opportunity of applying to higher education – do they know in Y9 that it is something they might want to do? What support needs to be in place to make this a genuine option? Find out about the support that different universities offer for ‘disabled’ students, be clear on who this includes, and how they can access the support once they have been offered a place. Make sure they are aware of the DSA and what is covered in this, how it can make university a viable option for them.

HE institutions: make your offer as visible and as accessible as possible so that potential students don’t need to already know about it in order to find it but can see clearly what is available. Some suggestions from current students with SEND include: have someone like the SENCO in schools who coordinates the provision (and if this role already exists, publicise it); try to get specialist mentors in place for the start of first year – this will really help with those difficult first weeks, but does not always happen; consider having ‘transition weeks’, probably after A levels, for those students who need a supported introduction to living away from home as well as starting a degree course; and the long breaks between terms can be particularly challenging – could support be put in place during these to keep students with SEND positively engaged?

A lot of this comes down to communication. If we all talk and work together to make the application process and university itself as accessible and welcoming as possible for young people with SEND, we can feel more confident that potential is not being missed and that ALL our young people are able to follow their dreams to get the education they deserve.