Issues in Providing Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

The Quality Assurance Agency's Framework

Abstract: This section provides a brief review of the QAA's Code of Practice for the Assurance of Academic Quality and Standards in Higher Education; Section 3: Students with Disabilities (QAA, 2000c), highlighting those areas where good practice in relation to fieldwork and related activities is particularly relevant.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has recently published a suite of inter-related documents forming a full Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education (October 1999). The objective of Section 3: Students with Disabilities is 'to assist institutions in ensuring that students with disabilities have access to a learning experience comparable to that of their peers'. This is seen as part of the general philosophy embracing equality of opportunity and widening access for students, which is becoming more widely accepted internationally. Although the details of the QAA Code are specific to institutions of higher education in the UK, the general approach should be applicable everywhere.

The QAA Code includes a series of precepts relating to monitoring and evaluating performance in relation to disability against targets, and promotes the requirement to incorporate the needs and views of disabled students into core elements of overall service, and academic development planning at institutional level. Each precept has associated guidance notes which, although not expected to be prescriptive, nevertheless constitute good practice. The practical advice included is intended only to be introductory. The Agency also expected that all HEIs would be able to demonstrate compliance with the precepts by Autumn 2000. Both Institutional Reviews and Academic Reviews (or their successors) of courses must therefore assume that broad adherence should be demonstrable by departments, even without the pedagogic and moral imperatives which underpin the philosophy of these guides. It might be anticipated that most institutions will build these considerations into their normal internal review processes, anyway.

Only one precept, Precept 11, relates specifically to field trips and study abroad, and states:

Institutions should ensure that, wherever possible, disabled students have access to academic and vocational placements including field trips and study abroad.

(QAA, October 1999, Precept 11)

However, many of the other precepts also suggest appropriate methods of ensuring the move towards an inclusive curriculum, including learning and teaching in the field and related activities. A brief overview will highlight some of the practical interpretations which may be made specifically in relation to fieldwork.

Precepts 1 and 2 are concerned with the principle of inclusivity, and stress the need for both academic and social inclusion, in all parts of the physical environment of the institution (see Barriers and Strategies). Precept 2 also raises the point that:

'flexible and imaginative approaches to enabling alternative means of participation where physical access is impossible or unreasonably difficult'

must be a consideration. For some departments and particular fieldclasses, the exploration of what is impossible or unreasonably difficult will be a matter for continuing debate and the establishment of precedent, but the exhortation to be imaginative should nevertheless be seen as encouraging and positive, and acted upon. The key word 'reasonable' is critical, and some guidance on this is available from the DDA itself. Following the example given in the Act, a student with a mobility impairment visiting a quarry to inspect a particular sedimentary sequence and associated structures in situ, may not be able to approach all parts of the exposure or quarry face because it would be unreasonable to expect ramps and or lifting apparatus to be provided for this short visit. It would be entirely reasonable however, to expect that the student could remain on the quarry floor at an accessible point (perhaps even inside the transport) and have hand specimens brought to them for examination. Building upon this, it might be possible for the student and the assistant to communicate with walkie-talkies, such that the assistant could be directed to particular points for sampling. Similarly it might be unreasonable to expect a range of group field classes to different destinations in order to address the learning outcomes of a single course element for an individual or small group of students. But it might be reasonable to expect them to provide academic tutorial support for a disabled student to undertake self-managed field study close to their home. Sharing good practice between departments will be necessary in order to develop corporate understanding of what is possible and impossible, reasonable and unreasonable, but the Code provides a clear steer to departments increasingly to ensure full participation.

Precept 3 refers to ensuring accessible facilities and equipment in institutional settings, but naturally the same principles apply to work and residence beyond the campus, albeit if temporary. Transport, accommodation, access to sites and buildings, use of technical or scientific equipment and personal or technological assistance, would all be embraced. The requirement for appropriate and timely published information is covered in Precept 4, which emphasises the requirement that 'information on placement opportunities, where relevant, is available at an early stage'. The same consideration must relate to advance information on fieldclasses, where generic issues about living and working in groups, plus detailed information on facilities, potential physical constraints, and special needs for particular locations and settings will need to be explained and explored at the appropriate point.

Precepts 5 through to 7 are concerned specifically with the selection and admission of students, and their subsequent enrolment, registration and induction. Institutions are specifically reminded to

'ensure that the criteria and procedures used for selecting students are relevant to the requirements of the programme, including any professional requirements, and do not unjustifiably disadvantage or debar applicants with disabilities'.

For students on BEd or PGCE programmes involving geography, earth or environmental science, there are medical requirements which usually need to be met by applicants planning a career in school teaching (though in practice not all students on these programmes do plan to teach). But for the majority of programmes to which reference is made in this guide, professional requirements will not debar disabled candidates (although the Geological Society are currently reviewing their requirements for Chartered Geologist status). As Hall et al. (2002) have demonstrated, many departments do nevertheless need carefully to consider the imagery and descriptions they use in recruitment, to avoid deterring some groups of prospective applicants by suggesting subliminally that successful fieldclass participation inevitably requires students to be young, physically strong and (usually) male. There is also some guidance in the notes accompanying the Precept relating to the collection of information from students, and the measures taken to ensure confidentiality. These will impact upon information held by fieldclass organisers perhaps for health and safety reasons, or for reasons associated with access to additional specialist support needs. Specific guidance may also need to be taken from the host institution's Data Protection Act specialist.

Learning and teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level are covered by Precepts 8 to 12, which relate to planning the detailed curriculum (including research programmes) to be inclusive and accessible, minimising the barriers to participation by disabled students, and flagging up areas of potential challenge. Adapting programmes to render them appropriate for particular individuals is clearly an expectation of the QAA, for example through the provision of information in different formats, by accommodating the needs of interpreters, and through flexible timetabling; all of these are highly significant for field class planning. The guidance notes for Precept 11, to which reference has previously been made (see above), refer specifically to re-locating fieldclasses and trips to alternative sites, or providing alternative experiences where opportunities to satisfy the learning outcomes can be provided. The QAA make no suggestion about the appropriate balance between relocating all classes, and provision of alternative locations (that is, multiple runs for different groups or individuals) or experiences (for example by using teaching methods which do not require students to go off-campus, but achieve the same outcomes), a matter which may be a fruitful area for debate for departments with small numbers of students.

Precepts 13 and 14 concern assessment and progression, again stressing flexibility and the need for consideration of alternative but equivalent methods for students to demonstrate their competencies and achievements. Timing, and the need for adaptable approaches to course or assignment completion within restricted periods, are a clear area for consideration when planning assessment of the learning outcomes of study in the field. Staff development needs (Precept 15) embrace provision both for general awareness of disability amongst all staff, and the use of specific training for individual staff with particular responsibilities when needs arise. This latter might naturally relate to the management and operation of field classes and related activities including approaches to assessment, and could be undertaken at group or departmental level. The former is almost certainly a generic matter for institutions to address, but within which the addressing of specific tasks and responsibilities will be placed.

The remaining precepts, 16 through to 24, contain a range of considerations concerning access to support services (which should include those available to students studying off-campus either for the day, or over a longer period), provision of specialist skills relating to disability at institutional level, and understanding and communicating individual disabled student's specific needs to staff. The effectiveness of provision for disabled students should be automatically and regularly reviewed, thus providing opportunities for enhancement (Precept 24) for all students. Some process for recording and acting on complaints is also indicated (Precept 23), but this should be a normal part of most field class evaluations, either in general terms, or in relation to specific events.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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