Danny is showing real promise on his electrical installation course. The only thing that's holding him back is the fact that he has a visual impairment. He attends a functional skills English lesson once a week but rarely wears his glasses and won't use the enlarged documents provided for him. The additional learning support team at his college has supplied him with a portable electronic magnifier but he never takes it out of his bag. He fails spectacularly.
Sheri, who is on a beauty therapy course, has a problem with writing. The notes she takes are illegible and this, coupled with poor memory retention, means that her time in the classroom is of little use to her. She is given an MP3 voice recorder so that she can record her tutor and use a speech-to-text program to convert those recordings. But she never once brings the recorder to college. She drops out in the second term.
These are not isolated cases: a widespread stigma is still attached to receiving learning support in a mainstream setting, even in further education. I look forward to the day when support is fully integrated and accepted as part of the process, but I don't think we are there just yet. Institutions have done a lot to offer opportunities to those who have difficulties. But often the problem is often not one of provision but of the attitude towards that provision.
I've been an additional learning support tutor and I find the hesitancy to accept support both frustrating and understandable. By the time students get to us, they will have gone through years of education and they carry that accumulated experience with them. As much as we try to emphasise that college is a fresh start, it is still another educational establishment: if you've spent your entire school career taking flak from peers who lack sensitivity when it comes to, say, the fact that you need A3 worksheets with enlarged text, then the prospect of the same thing happening at college will not be a happy one. Hence the hesitancy. So what can we do to ensure that students accept the help available to them?
Explore technology together
There are ways to minimise the embarrassment. With the development of more discreet assistive technology (much of it in the form of apps that students can use on their phones), alternatives are now available to some of the highly visible techniques that set learners apart in the past. Through discussions with the student, it is possible to find the tools that best suit them. This can be a process of trial and error, but looking at these things in partnership can help the learner to gain ownership of their own support and thereby minimise the risk of them dropping it. Although useful, however, this will not address the root problem. Students will still attach stigma to the intervention.
Have honest conversations
We need real transparency before support is put in place: a frank discussion with the student about what form the support will take, what the benefits will be if they keep it up and how they feel about the help they are receiving. It can also be a good tactic to show empathy by acknowledging some of the social problems that accompany support and the embarrassment that may arise from doing something out of the ordinary in class. But I don't think this should be emphasised to such an extent that it gives the student an excuse to avoid things that will help them with their education.
Instead, make it clear that they must put their education first. If help is available but not taken up owing to social pressures (real or imagined) then in some cases it's necessary to get a little tough. Reinforce the importance of support and its place in their future success. Try to be firm if a student isn't taking steps to maximise their learning - if they're not, we're not doing our jobs properly and they may well be wasting their time. Those who use the fact that others are accessing support as a means of mocking and bullying should be dealt with accordingly. Equality - and general common decency - demands this.
We need to act immediately. Students slip back so quickly, and in FE that can mean losing them altogether. Until support is completely normalised, we have to work hard to enable those who need assistance to make the most of it.
Tom Starkey teaches in an FE college in the North of England and is a TES columnist. Find him on Twitter at @tstarkey1212
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