Post-16 Education: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help

In June 2021, the Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR) at the University of Birmingham hosted a free online conference, Lost In Transition, to mark the conclusion of the Longitudinal Transitions Study. Thomas Pocklington Trust supported this event.

The importance of self-advocacy was a theme that ran through the first workshop at the conference. Aimed at students moving into post-16 education, the workshop gave practical advice to students transitioning into further education (FE), higher education (HE), and postgraduate study. It also highlighted where more needs to be done to support students.

The panel consisted of Tara Chattaway, Head of Education at TPT, Alex Henderson, Student Support Coordinator at TPT, Molly Hobbs, Student Support Coordinator at TPT and Elin Williams, Volunteer Coordinator at LOOK UK.

Also speaking were Azeem Amir and Ussud Ali. They both have vision impairment and are currently studying in higher education. They are mentors at LOOK UK and spoke about their experiences moving into higher education.

Academic attainment: what we know

Tara Chattaway kicked off the session with some data about students with vision impairment. She said: “Pupils with vision impairment are the highest attaining of the specialist educational needs (SEN) groups, however, they are significantly behind their peers in terms of academic attainment.”

At Key Stage 2, 46% of pupils with VI as their primary SEN in state funded schools achieved the expected, or above the expected, standard in reading, writing and maths. This compares to 70% of all other pupils. At the end of Key Stage 4, 48.9% of students with VI as their primary SEN gained GCSE grade 4/C or above in English and Maths in 2016/17. This compares to 63.9% of all other pupils.

Tara added:

“This shows the extent of the challenges facing students with vision impairment looking to move into further and higher education. But there are things that both universities and colleges, and students themselves, can do to help meet these challenges.”

The challenges of getting support in place in Further and Higher education

Alex Henderson, Student Support Coordinator at TPT, shared first-hand experiences of helping students in his role. He said:

“There are two sides of this equation that need improving. The first are the barriers colleges need to remove and the second is educating students on what they can do for themselves.

Colleges lack awareness of vision impairment. They often have little to no knowledge of it and therefore do not know how to support students. This can also lead to resistance from the college to take on students with vision impairment.”

Elin from Look UK said: “HE is a very different setting to FE so it’s important young people are equipped with the knowledge around DSA and practical advice on specific assistive tech for their assessment.”

Ussud Ali’s story began three years ago when his sight started to deteriorate whilst studying a BTEC course in film media at college. He said: “My vision was affected during my college years. I didn’t have the knowledge myself and no one understood what I was going through. The college didn’t offer any support, so I left.

“Further down the line when I eventually got support in place, a QTVI suggested I investigate university courses. I had concerns about how I was going to access materials, get around campus and communicate my needs to others. I was worried it I would have a similar experience as college, but it wasn’t similar – university was a positive experience. My lectures were very understanding of my needs.”

Ensuring course and exams materials are accessible

One issue that repeatedly comes up from students is inaccessible course materials. Students across all education levels are being provided with materials in inaccessible formats. This means blind and partially sighted people cannot access the work they should be able to, which has a significant impact.

Molly Hobbs raised the issues around online exams: “Since Covid-19, universities have adapted to online exams, but this comes with new challenges for students with vision impairment.  A lot of online platforms block assistive tech. Even when lecturers spend hours making accessible materials, portals can block students accessing the work they need.

“Significant time for the student goes into working out what accessible technology will work for them, and they then need training and testing. All this planning and time puts a huge strain on students to even do the work – something their sighted peers do not have to endure.”

Alex said: “There is a lack of provision for accessible technology. It can be a real game changer. I couldn’t do this job without it. The right training and support can transform a student into becoming a productivity ninja. It’s frustrating because it is something that is so easily fixable but impacts on a students’ independence and ability to just get on with the work”.

The panel agreed university and college providers need to work harder to make exams and course materials more inclusive. Blind and partially sighted student have to deal with issues far beyond their sighted peers. Students should be easily made aware of what is out there to give them the best possible chance.

The power of mentoring

Even though some universities and colleges could do more to assist blind and partially sighted students, there is support available. Elin Williams from Look UK discussed Look’s mentoring service for students. The service has 91 trained mentors and 86 mentees.

She said:

“The most common topic on the mentoring project is the social and emotional aspect. Young people want advice on living independently, how to go about making friends and socialising.”

Azeem Amir, currently a mentor at Look UK discussed his own personal transition during the summer between his A-levels and his undergraduate degree. He is now studying a postgraduate degree in Sports Management at Salford University.  He said: “I had so much to learn and organise during that summer, but I was lucky my needs assessor was fantastic. I know it’s not this way for a lot of students with vision impairment.

“The reason I signed up to be a mentor was to support young people in whatever way I can. With the right support package in place you can achieve whatever you set your mind to. I want to instil this in the people I mentor – having a vision impairment is not a barrier.”

Ussud added: “I had a lot of support from my mentor at Look UK. They gave me a lot of advice about different elements of university and what I should be looking at for my DSA.

“I think about what I went through at college. I was on the other end of it as a mentee. That’s why I decided to become a mentor. I have now signed up to a counselling course I want to continue to help others.”

Elin highlighted why the mentoring scheme is so beneficial for any blind or partially sighted person in any education setting: “Being able to speak to someone who’s been in that situation for advice and recommendations, based on their own lived experience of going through it already.”

What role can students play in their own transition?  

Throughout the workshop self-advocacy was raised as the most important attribute to ensure any transition journey is seamless.

Alex said: “Students with vision impairment lack knowledge about the type of support they should be asking for. Some students have very low aspirations and limiting ideas on what is possible for themselves. Students need to speak up for themselves and talk about their needs and what support they expect.”

This was echoed by Ussud Ali:

“Self-advocacy is the key skill that every student needs – for accessibility needs, mobility support, socialising and building friendships.

“Whilst blind and partially sighted people will face challenges transitioning into higher or further education, there is a lot of support out there that can help with this. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or communicate what you need.”

At TPT we have a number of resources to help on your journey:

Accessible technology for students 

Six steps into University

Delivering accessible learning: A guide for Further Education providers supporting blind and partially sighted students

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