Students’ learning needs are met at university, but not on apprenticeships, says Chris Quickfall

How can it be, in a world that talks so much about equality and diversity, that the self-development opportunities for learners with a neurodiversity, for instance dyslexia, favour one post-16 study route far more than another?

If a learning weakness is present, a university student has a good chance of being assessed by an educational psychologist and identified for any additional learning needs. If identified, they can access support services throughout their studies, enabling them to learn coping strategies and overcome their learning difficulties.

Universities have dedicated disability support officers, assistive technologies, and staff and lecturers who are neurodiversity aware. These individuals are qualified to usher post learners to the right support.

The support structure for apprentices is shockingly fragile in comparison. If a learner chooses to undertake an apprenticeship it is doubtful that they will even be assessed for a learning need. Without this, they receive no targeted support and lose the opportunity to learn valuable coping strategies.

I was the last one in my class in primary school to spell my own name, to learn the alphabet or the months of year, and to tell the time. Education has a way of creating a negative echo chamber, repeating the message that you’re a bit thick.

Education has a way of creating a negative echo chamber

I was the best in the class at maths, but when the only kid who still can’t spell his own name outperforms his peers in maths, he is labelled a cheat, and cheats get punished.

The system’s incorrect assumptions discouraged me from performing where I was strongest, so I gravitated to sport and learned I could be quite good at not being good at what I was good at.

At university I studied mechanical engineering and almost 40 per cent of my class was diagnosed with a learning difficulty. Concentrations like these happen in certain subjects because neurodiversities often cause the brain to prefer some types of information.

We are finding these concentrations within different branches of the apprenticeship sector too: with ranges of identification from 11 per cent to 70 per cent of learners, depending on the area of specialism.

This year we have assessed nearly 10,000 apprentices, studying levels one through to five in a broad range of subjects, and found that around 19.6 per cent have a hidden learning need.

I’m more concerned than ever that when talking to apprenticeship providers, I keep hearing that “my learners do not have learning difficulties; they are level three”. This shows how ill-prepared some providers are for meeting the needs of all their learners.

Ofsted has publicly stated that the majority of the skills sector is not doing a good enough job in this area. The lack of training and awareness means the main intervention for a learner with an additional learning is more often than not “more time”: more of the same training that did not work first time round.

As apprenticeships become a more significant part of UK education, it is imperative to identify and support this group of learners. The government needs to fund this area as well as it does higher education, and the sector needs more training.

Higher education students have access to a grant called the disabled students allowance, which pays £660 for an expert to identify relevant interventions, and hands out up to £5,358 for software and hardware, and as much as £21,305 per year for ongoing support.

FE students don’t have access to DSA. The most recent release from HESA is 2014/15 data that showed 88,930 claiming DSA. Even though only a few learners ever reach the ceiling of these grants, it demonstrates the disparity between the two study routes.

I am presently working with industry leaders and sector bodies to establish a neurodiversity interest group to identify best practice and share this across the sector, championing an equal approach to neurodiversity and inclusivity for all.

Today we are letting learners with neurodiversities down, but tomorrow can look different.

Chris Quickfall is CEO and founder of CognAssist