Sunday 11 December 2016

Easing the path to college for dyslexic students

More changes to the DARE scheme will increase numbers eligible for college entry on reduced CAO points

Published 10/11/2016 | 02:30

The CAO 2017 season has opened and, with it, a window to the dreams and desires of about 60,000 sixth year students.

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Finding the right course, getting through the Leaving Cert itself, meeting course entry requirements and, then, hoping to be well positioned in the points races, are challenges ahead for all students. Students with a disability have an additional hurdle.

Some big changes this year will ease the path, through both the Leaving Cert and the college application process, for candidates with a specific learning difficulty (SLD) - dyslexia or dyscalculia - or a developmental coordination disorder (DCD) dyspraxia or dysgraphia.

One is the reform to the scheme known as RACE (Reasonable Accommodation at the Certificate Examinations) through which students with a disability can get a support in the State exams to ensure that their condition does not act as a barrier to their demonstrating their academic ability.

As detailed on this page two weeks ago, the RACE reforms focus very much on assisting students with difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dysgraphia, which is expected to see about 1,000 more Leaving Cert candidates receiving exam supports every year.

Under a separate initiative, students with these difficulties or disorders, as well as dyscalculia, are set to benefit from changes relating directly to the college entry process, under the scheme known as DARE (Disability Access Route to Education).

DARE is an alternative entry route to college, which allows students with a disability to compete for reserved places that are offered on lower points than the standard CAO cut-off.

This is a recognition that, over the course of schooling, the disability may have been an obstacle to them achieving their potential in the Leaving Cert.

Some 17 higher education colleges participate in DARE, including the seven universities, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).

Eligibility for DARE does not guarantee entry on lower points but it can act as insurance for students with a disability who, in August, fall short of the standard-off points for a preferred course. They then have the back-up of this more limited competition, with other DARE applicants, for a reserved place. The number of reserved places can vary from college to college and course to course.

Although the changes happening in RACE and DARE are unrelated, both separately, and together, they will improve significantly the landscape for the significant cohort of Leaving Cert students and CAO applicants with conditions such as dyslexia.

There was an initial round of DARE changes last year, including the introduction of a new-style Educational Impact Statement (EIS), allowing a student, and the school, to set out whether a diagnosed condition has had a detrimental effect on their education.

For example, some students with diabetes Type 1 will experience significant educational impact as a result of their condition, but others with the same condition may not experience any educational-related challenges. The new DARE criteria make it easier for students and their parents to know whether they are likely to be eligible based on their disability and the educational impact it has had on them.

Also, for the first time this year, a GP, rather than a consultant, could verify a student's diagnosed condition, such as a mental health issue or a blood disorder. It means that the student does not have to return to the consultant or specialist to get the necessary evidence of disability documentation, which saves a lot of trouble and money.

Those changes are credited with bringing about an average 21pc increase in eligible applications for DARE this year, up from 2,550 in 2015. The effect of the more relaxed rules was particularly marked for students with mental health issues and for students with a significant ongoing illness, such as cystic fibrosis and chronic fatigue.

Kieran Houlihan of the DARE HEAR Shared Services Unit at the Irish Universities Association (IUA) said the increase in eligible DARE applicants this year was a "positive indicator that the changes to the scheme have helped open it up to a new cohort of young people from low income backgrounds who previously were not applying".

HEAR stands for Higher Education Access Route, which supports students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds in accessing higher education. Mr Houlihan said this year marked a special milestone for DARE and HEAR, with 20,000 students having been admitted to higher education under the schemes since 2009.

The roll out of the final set of changes to DARE this year is expected to bring more positive outcomes and benefit the single biggest group of applicants - those with an SLD, such as dyslexia. This group accounted for over 900 eligible applicants in 2016, a number that is now expected to increase very significantly.

The major DARE change for 2017 is the abolition of the requirement for students with an SLD or DCD, to produce an up-to-date professional assessment, such as from an educational psychologist.

While many such students would have had a professional assessment, provided at no cost in their primary school days, up to now, DARE rules required them to produce one that was no more than three-years-old.

Such reports cost about €600-€700, which acted as a deterrent to families who could not afford to pay, giving an edge to the better-off. A review showed that 21pc of DARE places in 2014 went to students from 15 fee-paying schools, which represent less than 2pc of all post-primary schools.

Participating colleges now also prioritise applicants who are eligible for both DARE and HEAR, when allocating reduced points places.

The changes to RACE and DARE aim to make life easier for, broadly, the same cohort of students, but there are differences in their purpose - one deals with exam supports and the other college entry - and their eligibility criteria.

So, while a Leaving Cert candidate with, for instance, dyslexia, will find it easer to get an exam support this year, meeting the eligibility for RACE will not necessarily make a student eligible for DARE.

An example of a difference between the eligibility criteria for the two schemes is that DARE will require lower scores on literacy attainment tests conducted in schools than is acceptable for RACE.

'There are so many possibilities in what children  can achieve if they keep questioning and learning'

Children are born learners, with a natural curiosity to figure out how the world works. Ahead of Science Week next week, students of all ages are being encouraged to delve into science.

Alexandra Boyd, project manager at UCD Research, says that science is all around us, and children should ask questions and explore their interests both in and outside of the classroom.

"When children are immersed in a subject outside of school a different kind of learning occurs that resonates with them. It could be trying experiments for themselves and discovering something new," she says.

"Even a walk on a beach can be a world of discovery, when the child examines the rocks, sand, shells and maybe questions why there is rubbish coming from the sea and asks about pollution.

"We should never stop asking questions and learning and if we don't know the answer to give the child, there is a golden opportunity to share in the experience of discovering the answer."

Ms Boyd was involved in creating the 'Science Apprentice' book series, published by UCD and supported by Science Foundation Ireland.

Each instalment focuses on a different topic, with the first two concentrating on space and energy and resources, and the remaining three set to cover food and health, computers and data, and a connected future.

As well as complementing the primary school science curriculum, the series features Irish researchers explaining how they developed a passion for science and technology as young children.

"The purpose of the books is to challenge the idea that science is something that other people do in colleges or universities. Through the books we hope that children see that there are so many possibilities in what they can achieve if they keep questioning and learning," she says.

The 'Science Apprentice' books are free to collect with the Irish Independent in Tesco stores every Saturday until November 26

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