The education committee checks in on DSA reforms

Communication, cost versus quality, and the loss of experienced assessors all get a hearing

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

The education committee picked a somewhat odd time to take a look at the rollout of recent changes to Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA), which Lucy Merritt has explained in more detail on Wonkhe recently.

The new system – involving the two suppliers Capita and Study Tech taking responsibility for the “end-to-end journey” of a student (apart from non-medical help), covering needs assessment, assistive technology delivery, and ongoing support and training – kicked into operation at the end of February, so there’s not a clear picture yet about how it’s working out. Much of what the committee heard was about KPIs and processes, and how badly the old system had been operating, rather than really getting to the heart of whether and why its replacement will operate better.

It was, though, certainly clear that the rollout of the new system is causing concern among stakeholders. Chair of the National Association of Disability Practitioners Sarah Todd began her evidence by stressing that “the communication, the clarity of the process and in terms of what has and hasn’t already started, has been extremely poor.”

Along with representatives of the Thomas Pocklington Trust and the National Network of Assessment Centres in the first part of the session, she stressed the fundamental need for a full, detailed review of how the new system was serving disabled students (conspicuously missed from the list of session invitees) within the first year, and certainly before any further changes to DSA were enacted.

For the government, Baroness Barran made clear that the recent DfE call for evidence on reforms to the non-medical help parts of DSA was just that, rather than an indication of a planned change, though she did draw comparisons between the fragmented supplier market for DSA in the past which has led to the new system and the current fragmented landscape of non-medical help provision. SLC chief executive Chris Larmer also mentioned that the Government Internal Audit Agency would be looking at DSA in the autumn, though not, you’d think, from a student perspective.

The early witnesses described an exodus of both established assessment centres and assessors themselves over the five years since the tender for a new system was announced (in a good part driven by the springing up of a very large number of small, new centres specialising in telephone assessments). We heard that 40 main centres have closed or are in the process of closing since the move to the new system was first raised in 2019.

In the end, front and centre in importance for getting assessments right is surely having experienced and well-trained assessors in place. Capita’s representative at the hearing suggested that currently 65 per cent of their assessors were experienced DSA assessors, and Study Tech said 85 per cent of theirs were.

The committee also took a great deal of interest in whether assessments were being carried out online or in person – different stats were produced by different witness, but the SLC data seemed to show that in the system as was, ten per cent of assessments were in-person, whereas it now looked to have ticked up to 20 per cent (Capita’s spokesperson said 94 per cent of their clients in initial stages were requesting online assessments). The point had been made earlier that face-to-face is essential for some students to try out equipment, but the maxim of customer choice on how and where to access assessments seemed to be prevailing elsewhere.

Conservative MP Vicky Ford raised her concern about Capita’s presence as one of the two appointed suppliers, given its history delivering Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments for disabled people accessing benefits:

When I first started this job seven years ago, I used to get really desperately sad correspondence from people who were going through the PIP process which Capita ran, and Capita still runs. And when I say sad, I mean desperate. People treated as objects, assessors who had no view of the individuals, tick-box exercises. […]

What have you learned from what went so desperately wrong with PIP six years ago, and how you’re doing it today? And how you can assure us, and assure students and the parents and families of often very vulnerable young people who are leaving home for the very first time, that you are going to be there, that they are not going to be treated as tick-box exercises, and that they are going to get the support that they need, at the time they need it?

Laura Blackman from Capita said she could not speak to the issue as it was not part of her area of work, and was asked to write to the committee.

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