REVIEW OF DISABLED STUDENTS’ ALLOWANCES (DSAs) BY SKILL (2001).
At the beginning of the year, the Department commissioned SKILL to undertake a limited survey of DSAs. The purpose of the survey was to examine current practice in the arrangements for processing applications and to make recommendations to improve the efficiency of the DSA scheme.
SKILL have now completed their review and given the Department their findings and recommendations (summarised here). We plan to consult the LEAs and others before deciding the Department’s response, including discussing the findings and recommendations in a forum of interested parties in the autumn. We expect to issue new guidance to LEAs and institutions next year on good practice in handling DSAs.
SKILL SURVEY REPORT: SUMMARY, CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities
SURVEY OF DISABLED STUDENTS’ ALLOWANCES IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Report on the administration of DSAs
Compiled by Caroline Lewis and Sophie Corlett, Skill
Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities
18-20 Crucifix Lane
London SE1 3JW
020 7450 0620 (voice/text)
020 7450 0650 (fax)
This research project was set up to undertake a limited survey to investigate how effectively the policy to provide Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) for eligible students in higher education in England and Wales was being implemented. The purpose was to identify both good practice and poor practice in current arrangements and to suggest recommended improvements for the future. The particular focus for the research was:
Skill: the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, was appointed by the Department for Education and Employment to carry out the work. Questionnaires were sent to local education authorities and disability officers at higher education institutions, and a small number of students. Visits were made to local education authorities in order to inspect case files of students applying for DSA. Other disability organisations were also consulted informally.
The main findings included a confirmation that high levels of perceived inadequacy exist in terms of the waiting times students face for a needs assessment, caused by an autumn term ‘bottleneck’, and a lack of local provision. This bottleneck is caused by the fact that prospective students are not eligible for DSAs so local education authorities generally do not fund needs assessments for these students until they start their courses. These two related factors combine to prevent DSA support being in place by the start of term. This is clearly a fundamental flaw at the heart of the system that needs addressing.
The project also established the need for standardisation of procedures across regions and agencies. Although much of the administration of Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) is carried out by local education authorities and higher education institutions, assessment centres (where students go to have their DSA support determined) and suppliers are also involved. Standardisation of procedures would enforce better co-ordination between the agencies, reduce bureaucracy, make paperwork more efficient, and make the system fair and equal for students across the country. There is also a need for a national accreditation system for assessment centres and national training for LEA officers to improve their knowledge of disability and disability support needs in higher education.
In the light of the above, it is recommended that DSA needs assessments are funded well in advance of the autumn term for prospective students with conditional offers. Delays in the process are a particular problem with dyslexic students who generally have to undergo an extra stage in the process.
Skill also recommends that consideration be given to setting up a national accreditation process for assessment centres and that a national training programme for LEA officers be rolled out. In addition agencies should work towards shared formats for paperwork and electronic communication to improve the speed of delivery. IT suppliers should be encouraged to offer service level agreements to cover students throughout their courses.
Finally DSAs need to be better publicised in schools and further education colleges, and when students make an application they should be given the name of at least one officer at their LEA, who will lead on actively progressing their application and whom the student can telephone during working hours.
The report exposes some of the other general overriding problems and difficulties that occur in the DSA administration process as it exists at the moment. We conclude that:
1.1 Speed and availability of needs assessments
1.2 Administration by local education authorities
1.3 Role of disability officers
1.4 Supply of specialist equipment
1.5 Overall timing of DSA applications
2 Skill’s Recommendations
2.1 Speed and availability of the needs assessment process
2.1.1 To address the shortage of provision, and subsequent long waiting periods, needs assessments need to be organised sooner in the year, and spread more evenly during the year, and/or the number of suppliers increased. It is therefore recommended that needs assessments are DSA-funded for prospective disabled students. (A prospective student could be defined as someone with a conditional offer.) Funding assessment centres and/or HEIs directly to perform the assessments, as happens currently, would remain an option. Alternatively, the Connexions service could take on the funding responsibility for prospective students who are school leavers. In order to reduce the to-ing and fro-ing of funding payments which contributes to bureaucracy and delays in the overall process, it would be helpful to fund directly the organisation that carries out the needs assessment. It should be noted that DSA awards may need to be updated and enhanced when the student begins his/her course because IT prices go up quickly, and some of the support may need to be tailored to the course.
2.1.2 Even if needs assessment appointments are funded and spread more evenly across the year, there may still be an autumn term bottleneck. This may be due to students coming through clearing, continuing students, those not knowing they have a need until they begin their studies or until their dyslexia, say, is ‘spotted’ by a member of staff or disability officer. More and more students are claiming DSAs since the advent of awards for part-time and postgraduate students. Demand is also expected to increase under the Widening Participation targets that encourage students to apply to higher education. For these reasons, and to improve levels of locally accessible provision, the number of assessment centres, and thereby the supply of needs assessments, should be increased.
2.1.3 In order to broaden choice and guarantee standards, a national certificate of competence to be an assessment centre should be established, and a separate one to be an assessor be established to which any organisation or individual can apply, including HEIs and freelance workers. If more and more HEI employees do take on an assessment role, it will be important to build in protection of their impartiality because they can face pressure from financial colleagues to make DSA claims as large as possible. It may be appropriate for assessors to have distinct and separate roles from disability support staff. It should be noted that NFAC already has an accreditation process for centres. The NFAC model could be considered and if suitable a similar model be developed for wider use. There is some concern about those wanting to become assessment centres while lacking sufficient equipment to conduct appropriate assessments. For this reason, it may be worth developing an accreditation system flexible enough to offer accreditation restricted to certain disabilities, eg dyslexia or deafness. Centres so accredited would then be registered as fully competent to assess students with specific disabilities only. To ensure success and deliver high standards, such an initiative would need to be centrally co-ordinated and carefully monitored. The DfES guidance for LEAs would need to be adapted to ensure that LEAs accept assessments from these newly certified centres.
2.1.4 A national professional training course for assessors should be firmly established (currently there are projects in the sector working towards this) as well as a standardised accreditation of existing qualifications according to agreed criteria.
2.1.5 A national standardisation of assessment centre paperwork should be established – eg shared format for assessment reports and application forms, so that they are accessible to students, and those working in the field become familiar with them and can help students complete them quickly. It is important that the standardised paperwork is flexible, to accommodate a degree of variation in style and the full range of students’ support needs. Consideration should be given to whether the standard needs assessment should have a more holistic remit than that of an needs assessment under DSA alone. For example, some types of support are not inherently financial.
2.2 The administration of DSA applications by LEAs
2.2.1 The DfES should produce clearer guidance to LEAs to resolve cases of alleged ‘marginal’ dyslexia. For example, case study files revealed the problem of students scoring isolated low scores on one or two areas in the battery of dyslexia tests being refused DSA by an LEA in-house psychologist.
2.2.2 Greater standardisation of paperwork should be achieved – eg standard letters and formats for application forms. Forms should be as simple and helpful as possible, and available in accessible formats. HEIs could obtain DSA application forms for issue to students, as well as LEAs.
2.2.3 LEAs should keep HEIs (where involved), students and their own case files updated on the amount of support so far received under the DSA scheme and the balance remaining.
2.2.4 The problem of in-house EPs challenging external EP reports should be addressed and resolved.
2.2.5 LEAs should make DSA payments to NMHs for cancellation fees, and consider making payments to NMHs for travel and subsistence, where appropriate. Cancellation expenses should also be refunded to assessment centres and trainers employed under the equipment allowance.
2.2.6 LEAs across the board should provide better information to students when instructing them to obtain a needs assessment. For many students the needs assessment is an entirely novel concept and they need to know the what, why, when, where and how of it.
2.2.7 IT networks within many LEAs need to be improved so that post-16 officers can access school SEN files where appropriate, eg where a pupil with an SEN statement later applies for DSA. This suggestion would need to be considered in terms of LEA-wide issues, as well as confidentiality issues under the Data Protection Act.
2.3 The role of disability officers in the DSA process
2.3.1 The DfES should produce guidance on whether it is appropriate for LEAs to request HEI endorsement of a DSA application.
2.3.2 The whole area of arranging NMH support should be addressed. DSA funding cannot currently be used to fund HEIs to act as ‘agencies’ to manage teams of NMHs. This whole issue will be affected by the new Disability Discrimination Act requirements to make anticipatory adjustments. Such adjustments could well mean that a team of varied, multi-skilled support staff will be in place at many HEIs to reflect a minimum level of predicted need. For example, dyslexia tutors and notetakers could be permanently employed, while sign language interpreters could be recruited only when student numbers and needs are confirmed. However, as formal recruitment generally takes at least two to three months, it may not be appropriate to recruit those extra individuals needed at the last minute. Instead ‘temping’ agencies could be used to provide staff at short notice and become invaluable sources of NMHs to plug such gaps.
With regard to NMH support, the interaction between DSA funding and HEI mainstream funding needs to be worked out. It should be noted however that HEFCE funding (Higher Education Funding Council for England) cannot be earmarked. However, a proportion of the DSA for NMH support could be channelled into the cost of overheads involved in providing a pool of support staff, possibly at the end of the summer term when provisional DSA numbers for the new academic year were known. However, DSA funding is meant to go to students directly, and empowers them as customers, so serious consideration would have to be given if measures were taken to re-route a proportion of the DSA NMH funding to HEIs. Another concern with routing LEA DSA-funds to HEIs directly is that such funding may not get ring-fenced for the purpose intended. LEAs would need to be careful that the right department was paid. In all cases it is important to get agreement for an arrangement between the student, LEA and HEI. There are many instances under the current system where HEIs invoice LEAs termly, with the student’s permission, and this arrangement can be ideal. However, there are many problems too.
2.3.3 HEIs should receive a copy of the needs assessment report (with the student’s permission).
2.4 The purchasing and supply of specialist equipment, focusing particularly on choice of suppliers
2.4.1 Suppliers should be nationally approved before they can provide DSA-funded equipment.
2.4.2 One criterion for becoming an approved IT supplier should be offering a service level agreement, with attached conditions as to after-sales service (some disability officers are working to achieve this). A number of individuals at assessment centres who are strong advocates for this are making their own arrangements in pursuit of this goal. Skill’s Information Service receives enquiries from students complaining about lack of after-sales care. In one case, problems with a student’s PC package became insoluble with the supplier, assessor and LEA all ‘passing the buck’. It should be noted however that small local suppliers of one-off items where ongoing problems are less likely (such as custom-made chairs) may need to be protected from the demands of a service level agreement.
2.4.3 Consideration should be given as to how suppliers could be encouraged to become approved DSA suppliers. Financial incentives may be appropriate. There is concern that suppliers may not otherwise want to take on the demands of the service level agreement, and currently the number of suppliers who do so is small enough to create a risk of regional monopolies.
2.4.4 Suppliers should work with students to obtain their written agreements regarding what can and cannot be done with their equipment. This is to avoid the situation where students enthusiastically overload the memory of their machines, with material from the internet or CD Roms, so that they malfunction. If suppliers are to be encouraged to sign up to service level agreements, it would not be appropriate for them to be called out to fix such easily avoidable problems.
2.4.5 In order for the benefit of the earlier arrangement of needs assessments to be carried through, LEAs should provide suppliers with provisional bookings (without payment) ‘to be confirmed’ as soon as needs assessment reports recommending equipment are received.
2.4.6 DSA awards for equipment should not be paid directly to students but routed to suppliers, once agreement with the student has been reached. Suppliers are happier to make deliveries before payment if the payment is coming from an LEA rather than an individual student. This precautionary measure safeguards the public purse from possible misuse of funds, through students misunderstanding, or abuse of, their DSA award.
2.5 Other areas
2.5.1 DSAs should be better publicised so that more students find out about them. This could be achieved through dissemination of information to schools, FE colleges, libraries and careers services by LEAs locally. Collaboration between FE colleges and HEIs also needs to be improved.
2.5.2 Regional networks of officers from LEAs, HEIs and assessment centres should work together to produce standard practices on certain issues in order to reduce national variation and share expertise. This would also enable assessment centres to assist disability officers with alternative recommendations if a particular support recommendation cannot be put into place for whatever reason. A disability officer may also want to make a recommendation which the assessment centre may not have considered. (This collaboration process could be started by inviting LEA and assessor ‘guests’ to the existing regional Skill HE networks.)
2.5.3 LEA DSA awards officers should undertake central training for their DSA administration role. (This is starting to happen informally.) Training could cover knowledge of disabilities and their effect on need. One officer from each LEA should receive training for the role wherever possible. The expertise and specialisation of the role needs to be developed, and many officers will welcome this opportunity to professionalise their role.
2.5.4 Students should have at least one named officer at their LEA (one of these to be their lead officer) involved with their case whom they can telephone and email to provide a more personal service. Where only one officer is named, LEAs should still ensure adequate cover for the work in the case of the named officer’s absence from the office.
2.5.5 LEA officers should have clear channels of peer support on difficult cases. For example, in small LEAs where the caseload is tiny, it will be difficult for officers to achieve the same degree of experience and expertise. These officers might develop links with other larger LEAs.
2.5.6 There may be a need for an anchor-role overseeing the whole process within the LEA on behalf of the student, especially where the HEI disability officer is not involved. The lead named officer (proposed above) could take such a role, and be the principal contact person for the student, chasing progress and drawing consensus from HEIs and assessment centres to achieve greater coherency in the process. Again it would be necessary for this person to be covered for sickness and absence.
2.5.7 Student choice should be built into each stage of the application process as far as possible – eg when arranging dates and times of appointments, and putting in place the different support elements. It should be noted that some organisations already endeavour to consult students whenever possible.
2.5.8 Electronic communication should be used more systematically across DSA administration as a whole, in order to speed up exchange of information. Clearly confidentiality of personal sensitive information would need to be assured. It may be that computer databases could also be used to generate and input standard report formats so that information can be more easily relayed, stored and monitored.