Chris Quickfall, CEO of Cognassist

Imagine driving a car that you couldn’t adjust for comfort or safety. The seating, the steering, the mirrors, the air con were fixed. No adjustment is possible for height or shape or gender. No deviation from a one-size-fits-all model is allowed.

You would have to imagine that car because no manufacturer in their right mind would build one or expect their customers to buy it. Yet when it comes to education, that’s exactly what we give to learners – a one-size-fits-all approach, regardless of how they learn or process information. We teach them in the same way, expect them to absorb information in the same way and assess them in the same way without making any allowances for their differences as learners.

We do this even though science is clear that our cognitive abilities and the ways we process information vary a great deal from individual to individual. Not all brains learn in the same way. And if learners are put in an educational environment that hasn’t been adjusted to account for their learning difference or disability (LDD) then we are loading the dice against them, we are setting them up to fail.

This might seem a minor problem for FE colleges and apprenticeship providers in a year that has presented them with so many unforeseen challenges. But it is far from a marginal problem – it is a widespread and persistent one. Over a third of apprentices have some kind of LDD and seven in ten typically go unidentified, according to our study. Which means that thousands of apprentices are struggling through their courses without the benefit of reasonable adjustments.

Contrary to popular belief, LDDs can be found across the entire student cohort – they are not correlated with intelligence. In fact, it’s extremely common for intelligence to mask an LDD. Dyslexics, for instance, are often not readily identified because consciously or unconsciously they have developed techniques to disguise their struggles with literacy. Age too plays a part. Older learners are far less likely than younger ones to disclose they have any kind of learning disability, whereas the young are less inclined to see it as a stigma. As pandemic-induced economic shocks lead to more older people retraining for new jobs, that cohort of learners is only likely to grow.

The consequences of not making reasonable adjustments for learners with LDD are severe. First and foremost, learners will be at a disadvantage to their peers, they will not perform to the best of their ability and they won’t be assessed fairly. We estimate that almost 9,000 students have dropped out of their courses over the past 12 months because their needs were not met.

The costs for colleges and apprenticeship providers can be shocking. Higher non-completion rates inevitably translate into damaged reputations, downgraded Ofsted ratings and poorer employer engagement. Some sectors are more badly affected than others. In construction, for instance, only 7% of apprentices say they have an LDD, whereas our figures suggest the true number could be six times higher (42%). Healthcare too is an area of concern – our analysis indicates that large numbers of learners in the sector have an unidentified learning difficulty.

The tragedy is that it doesn’t take a lot to improve the lot of LDD learners. Assessment isn’t complicated or intrusive. Training people to properly assess learners isn’t time-consuming – a three-hour course should suffice. Neither are reasonable adjustments expensive – the government provides money to enable providers to deploy them – but right now apprenticeship providers risk losing out twice. Not only are they missing out on an estimated £22 million in unused grants because they are failing to identify the learners that need support, but unless the underlying LDD is identified they will be simply wasting effort and resource using the same teaching strategies which didn’t help the learner progress the first time, for a second, or third time around. 

What’s more, many of the interventions that are used to teach people with LDDs are easy for experienced educators to grasp. A person with short-term working memory needs, for instance, will struggle to process information and accurately encode it into their long-term memory if it’s delivered at speed. But a simple adjustment by an educator – putting each new piece of information into a single sentence at a time and pausing at the end – will enable a learner’s brain to work the way it needs to.

Reasonable adjustments aren’t complicated, or expensive, or time-consuming. Why then, when so many apprentices struggle with undiagnosed learning difficulties, don’t we do more to help them?

Chris Quickfall is CEO of Cognassist, an education solutions business focused on supporting neurodiverse learners and their education providers. A free copy of the Cognassist white paper Reasonable Adjustments and Beyond: Taking Steps to Remove Barriers to Learning” is available here.

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