The trouble with frameworks

Martin-Mclean-cropped

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (Post-14), National Deaf Children’s Society

Last week the BSL interpreter’s union, NUBSLI, released a hard-hitting report criticising the Government use of national frameworks for public services buying in BSL interpreting support.

What is meant by a framework? (One of these terms loved by policy-makers but which probably means little to most ordinary people). In this situation, it is basically a set of conditions or rules that have to be followed by public bodies when buying in services. Governments like them because it allows them to control costs and quality.

So what is the problem? NUBSLI claims that the national frameworks for interpreting services being used by the NHS, courts, police and social services are damaging because it leads to contracts being awarded to a limited number of agencies. The agencies will gain contracts on the basis of delivering the required ‘quality’ for the lowest price. NUBSLI reports that there are a number of problems with this, including:

  • Having services provided by one large agency reduces choice for deaf people. They may not be able to use their preferred interpreter and cannot change the agency provided.

 

  • There is a downwards pressure on interpreter fees and their terms and conditions which threatens to make their work unsustainable.

 

  • Inexperienced interpreters are being used for very critical situations such as court cases or child protection meetings.

In 2016 the Government introduced a Quality Assurance Framework (QAF) for support funded through Disabled Student Allowances for students from England. It was not mentioned within NUBSLI’s report but there are some similarities. The QAF requires providers of support to pay to sign up to a register and agree to a number of terms and conditions. BSL interpreters have raised concerns about the QAF too because the administrative requirements of the framework discourage freelancers from registering.

We like quality assurance but our concern is that the way this system is set up can reduce choice for students. When I took my Masters degree in 2013 I was able to provide a list of preferred interpreters to my university’s Disability Advisor. This could no longer happen under the QAF. The fear is that more experienced interpreters (and other types of support workers) who will have a strong client base will decline to work in higher education due to unfavourable terms and conditions.

Are we therefore campaigning on this issue? Whilst some reservations have been expressed with civil servants, we have not been vocal about the QAF. This is because we lack evidence from deaf students themselves that they are receiving poor quality support. It is crucial for us to have evidence of a problem if we are going to be taken seriously by the Government.

If you are a higher education student not happy with the support you are getting through Disabled Student Allowances, please let us know by contacting our helpline. The same goes for anyone receiving support through the frameworks mentioned in NUBSLI’s report. Don’t suffer in silence – your case studies are really valuable for our work!

Getting the right advice

Martin-Mclean-cropped

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (Post-14), National Deaf Children’s Society

When I was a boy what I wanted to be when I was older changed regularly – I wanted to be a teacher, then a weather man and then a journalist and then it was a solicitor. As I grew older and had to seriously consider my options at GCSE followed by A-levels, the doubts crept in – would these jobs be suitable for me? Would the communication barrier be too great? ‘Focus on what you are good at’ I was told and I settled on the biological sciences in the end, following in my parents’ footsteps. Working in laboratory should be ok for a deaf person – there will be opportunities there, I thought to myself.

I was right – there were opportunities. After graduating in Genetics, I worked in a lab for a few months but I soon realised that this type of work was not for me. It was not because I was deaf – I know a few deaf scientists and they love their work. I just felt I had not followed my passions and had settled for the safe option.

It was in 1995 that I took my GCSEs and it was only in that year that disability discrimination laws were introduced. Access to Work, a Government scheme which can cover the costs of communication support in employment, was launched at the same time. I did not know anything about Access to Work or about my rights in employment until much later but I wish I had. I might then have had the courage to follow my passions. This is why I believe good careers advice does matter. Sadly, our research tells us too many young people are not getting this.

Last week, the Government launched a careers strategy which aims to make sure young people receive better careers advice in schools and colleges in England. Refreshingly, for a Government policy document, the needs of young people with disabilities were considered at several points within the strategy. The highlights in relation to deaf young people are:

  • Schools and colleges will be expected to use the Gatsby Benchmarks to improve careers provision. One these benchmarks is ‘addressing the needs of each pupil’ – particularly important for deaf young people.
  • Every school or college will have a Careers Leader who will be expected to prioritise careers support for ‘disadvantaged’ young people including young people with disabilities.
  • 20 Careers Hubs will be set up across England that will be focused on groups of young people ‘most in need of targeted support.’
  • The Careers and Enterprise Company and the Gatsby Foundation will work together to set out good practice in supporting young people with disabilities.

The strategy has the potential to make a difference. Unfortunately, it is not backed by much in the way of extra funding which may limit the ability of the new Careers Hubs and Careers Leaders to reach out to significant numbers of young people. Still, it is better than nothing.

The Careers Strategy only applies to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own careers policies and we know there are issues in those countries too. Wherever, you live we expect deaf young people to be getting tailored advice.

If you live or work with deaf young people, you too can play your part. Our website has videos aimed at young people thinking about their futures that you can signpost to. We are also looking at how we can further develop our resources around careers so watch this space! If you have any views about what we could produce – let us know in the comment boxes below.

PS – I did leave the laboratory by the way. 15 years, several roles and two more university degrees later, here I am as an Education and Training Policy Advisor for the National Deaf Children’s Society, a job I much enjoy!

Are universities going to become more inclusive?

Martin-Mclean-cropped

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (Post-14), National Deaf Children’s Society

Pretty soon, lots of teenagers will be receiving their A-level and BTEC results and find out if they will go to their preferred choice of university. I can remember how exciting and also nerve-wracking it felt to go to university for the first time. If you are deaf like me I think it can be even more so: will it be easy to follow the lectures? Will I make friends? Is communication going to be a problem?

Some readers of this blog will remember our fight against the changes to Disabled Students Allowances back in 2014 and 2015. Whilst the Government decided to maintain DSA funding for specialist note-takers (people with training specifically in writing notes for deaf students), funding for ordinary manual note-takers was removed for the 2016-17 academic year along with some other forms of less-specialised support such as library support assistants and proof-readers.

One of the Government’s justifications for cutting DSAs was because it wanted universities to develop a more inclusive approach to teaching so that learning is accessible to more students. No objections to that – we have always wanted universities to be more flexible. There have been plenty of deaf students who have expressed their frustration over the years at reasonable adjustments not being made such as Dean Kamitis in his recent Limping Chicken blog.

The Government has published guidance for higher education providers on ‘Inclusive Practice’. The guidance encourages universities to make changes so that their courses are more accessible to students with disabilities. Some universities are leading the way. I recently visited Du Montford University in Leicester and was impressed with their approach:

You have been waiting for it and here is the ‘but’. Does a piece of guidance go far enough? – the Government does not appear to have any stick (e.g. loss of funding) to beat universities with should they decide to ignore this guidance. Also, a couple of practitioners have said to me that they are concerned that some universities see inclusive practice as simply about rolling-out lecture capture technology. See this lecture recording for an explanation of how lecture capturing can benefit disabled students: see this lecture recording – oh wait…..no subtitles! And here lies the issue for many deaf students. Lecture capturing is not going to make a difference and could actually make access worse if more course content and materials move online.

Deaf students are small in number – most university disability advisors might be aware of 2 or 3 deaf students at their institution at most. This means that in general, teaching staff are not in regular contact with deaf students and have little awareness of their needs. This is why the National Deaf Children’s Society has extended our Supporting Achievement resources to higher education. Supporting the Achievement of Deaf Young People in Higher Education aims to provide disability advisors and other higher education staff with the information required to ensure deaf students get the support they need.

I know from experience, having people around who understand the barriers you face and how to communicate with you properly makes a huge difference. For deaf young people starting uni this September, it might help reduce those fresher’s week nerves!

If you are a young person at uni and you have having difficulties because your course is not fully accessible, you can get in touch with our helpline for further advice and guidance: http://www.ndcs.org.uk/family_support/how_ndcs_can_help/support_and_advice/

This blog is mostly relevant to students from England only as the DSA changes have not taken place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, the Supporting Achievement resource is aimed at universities across the whole of the UK.