Ten years ago, I was employed on two part-time contracts at two universities in the UK. In one I was employed as an academic study skills tutor, in which I would give advice to students on essay writing, reading strategies, exam preparation and time management.
In the other I was employed as a specialist dyslexia tutor, in which I would give advice to students on essay writing, reading strategies, exam preparation and time management.
There were evident similarities between the two roles; both were primarily student-facing, one-to-one advice and guidance sessions; both focussed on developing academic skills, and of course both required of the tutor an understanding of academic conventions, as well as the vagaries of university culture.
Not being quite so thoroughly embedded, at the time, in all things dyslexia-related, I was curious to know what it was exactly that made dyslexia specialists so special, and what distinguished them from their counterparts operating within more general study advice.
I embarked on several years of research for my doctor of education degree, looking into this field of support.
In the UK students with dyslexia are eligible to apply for a disabled students allowance (DSA). This is government funding that pays for support beyond that provided by the students’ respective institutions. For the most part it funds specialist support that is appropriate to students’ disabilities.
So, for example, a deaf student may receive funding for British Sign Language interpreters; students with physical impairments or autism may be granted DSA to finance travel expenses to their universities; and students with dyslexia can be awarded funding for one-to-one specialist study skills sessions, to be delivered by an appropriately qualified tutor.
My research focused on interviewing dyslexia tutors to discern what they knew about dyslexia and how they knew it. I also undertook a content analysis of specialist textbooks that provided study skills advice for dyslexic students and compared them against more general textbooks on study skills support.
The general purpose of the research was to identify any signature strategies that allowed dyslexia tutors to be labelled “specialist”.
The textual analyses and exploration of tutors’ professional practices revealed a consistently broad picture of unquestioning assumptions about what dyslexia is and how it affects students.
The research indicated that students with dyslexia receive support that is not specialist pedagogy. Moreover, in terms of the one-to-one nature of the DSA-funded interventions, there is little evidence to suggest that students entering higher education would not equally benefit from a similar type of study support service, albeit one provided entirely as an educational service rather than anything exclusively dyslexia-related.
A comparison between the recommended support interventions from the dyslexia-specific textbooks and the more general study skills texts did not identify anything substantially different between the two.
Amongst dyslexia tutors, there was a prevalent belief that dyslexia is cognitive in origin and genetic in nature, and that the primary and secondary characteristics of it are determined pathologically.
Needless to say, this has fed into a belief that any support provided by themselves is therefore inherently specialist. However, they could not specifically identify how support practice matched the notion that dyslexia is a cognitive, neurodevelopmental impairment requiring intervention from a trained professional. In other words, there was no consistent agreement about what made specialist support special and how that differed pedagogically from more general study skills advice.
The contact between dyslexia specialist and student has been given added relevance recently as government guidelines related to who may and may not claim to be a dyslexia specialist (and therefore claim DSA as payment for their services) has been revised.
Now there is a requirement that dyslexia tutors should ideally possess a specialist qualification and absolutely be a member of a professional body, specifically the British Dyslexia Association; the Dyslexia Guild; Patoss, the professional association of teachers of students with specific learning difficulties; or the Association of Dyslexia Specialists in Higher Education.
Colleagues across the sector working in universities and for private suppliers have related to me how this has put a terrible strain on their service. Many dyslexia tutors are employed on hourly paid, zero-hours contracts. In many cases, dyslexia support is their primary source of income.
Whereas previously it was at the discretion of their employer to decide what criteria constituted a dyslexia tutor, now the requirement for a specialist tutor funded through DSA is professional membership as minimum.
Given that becoming a member of professional dyslexia organisations requires annual renewal fees, on top of the time and expense of undertaking extensive CPD, the pool from which employers can draw will inevitably shrink as maintaining membership becomes increasingly expensive and time-consuming.
Yes, dyslexia tutors can be seen as specialists by virtue of their increasing professional identities, but in doing so drives a wedge through the perceived divisions that exist between themselves and study skills staff.
My recommendation would be for universities to entirely divest themselves of DSA support and integrate dyslexia tutors into a wider support service. If institutions that directly employ dyslexia tutors do this, that would allow tutors to support all students with a variety of learning needs while enabling them to be positioned as academic support professionals who also happen to advise dyslexic students.
Author Bio: Stephen Campbell is dyslexia and disability coordinator at Leeds Trinity University.