NADP works closely with our colleagues and partners to network, share information and support our members.
This episode finds Lynn Wilson from NADP chatting with Sharron Sturgess from the University of Leicester. We find out how Sharron and colleagues realised the need for personal support and CPD for mentors working with university students in Leicestershire and discover how they set up a county-wide network and their ideas and plans for the future.
NADPVIC2021: Joining the dots of inclusive practice – what is the picture now?
Lynn Wilson in conversation with Sharron Sturgess from the Leicestershire Specialist Mentoring Network.
Lynn: Welcome to the sixth in our series of NADP conference podcasts. These podcasts are a series of interviews where we aim to get to know our colleagues and partners and learn about their experiences working in our sector. Today I'm talking with Sharron Sturgess, who was one of the partners who set up the Leicestershire Specialist Mentoring Network. Welcome, Sharron.
Sharron: Morning, thanks for having me on.
Lynn: To start with, can you tell us something about you and your role within your actual institution?
Sharron: Yes. So, I'm currently an autism specialist. But I started life as a secondary school teacher, and I did that for a decade. And then when I had my children, I realised, there must be easier ways to earn a living than teaching. And it turns out there was! I became a disability adviser at Loughborough University, and I worked there for a while, and I became the manager of the service. And then for various reasons I wanted to specialise a bit more. So, I kind of went into autism; did some qualifications; made that my specialism; and then I moved across to the University of Leicester, where I am now running the autism support. I'm the autism specialist, and that includes running the mentoring service for Leicester University. I supervise a team of mentors as well as having a caseload of my own.
Lynn: So how big is your team? You say you run a team; and how many disabled students do you support?
Sharron: The Accessibility Centre, which is the disability service at Leicester, we're supporting about 1800 students, and we have about 90 autistic students at the university, so those are the ones I have particular responsibility for, and working alongside me I've got a team of five mentors, and we're probably mentoring about 50 students, although I aim to meet all of the autistic students that disclose to the university. These are the ones we know about, of course. I think there are many more autistic students that we're not supporting, because they've not shared that information with us. But yeah, there's about 90 students. I've got five mentors, and we're mentoring between 50 and 60 students between us at any one time.
Lynn: Okay, but there may be some of our listeners who don't know about the UK specialist mentoring service. Can you tell us a bit more about mentoring and who it assists?
Sharron: Yeah, so the idea behind mentoring is, it's about supporting students one-to-one to look at the barriers that their disability might place for them in their learning and their access to university life. I think there was a version of mentoring that existed before the DSA funded it but in 2014 it was sort of set up as a non-medical-health specialist band 4 role. So, there are basically two types of mentoring. So, there's mental health mentoring that will work with students with disclosed, mental health conditions to look at how they can remove the barriers they face, and the other specialist mentoring is for autistic students, which is the mentoring I'm involved with, and it's very much around working one to one with a student to look at the difficulties that they can encounter, that their autism might present for them in the way of barriers and helping that student to find the strategies that work for them, we’re very much a student led role – mentoring. You know as a good mentor, it's not about doing these things for students, it's about looking at why they're finding it hard to engage with their studies, or integrate into university life or get involved on a level that they want to get involved on and helping that student to work out ways around those problems for themselves. For me it's very much about it empowering students because if you do something for someone, they never learn to do it for themselves. And at the end of the day, we're with these students for three or four years of their life and then they're going to go off. So, what you want to do is to give them the tools, to manage their own disability for themselves. There is some mentoring required with other disabilities, certainly when I first started working, and I was a generalist, I did a lot of one to one work with students with Chronic Fatigue/ME and cognitive injuries, so brain injuries. That's not funded by DSA anymore, but I do know of universities that still provide mentoring for those sorts of disabilities as well.
Lynn: Yes, I was a mentor in the past and took mentoring qualifications and quite a few of the students I supported with would fall between the DSA bands now. I had a young lady with autism, which she would receive mentoring for, but besides that she also had very high levels of pain and so she used to concentrate in on the pain due to her autism concentration and get kind of spiralled down into this little circle of pain which was difficult, and I had another student with ADHD and chronic pain as well. And under the DSA system, she wouldn't receive mentoring now, it'd be up to the university to sort, I think,
Sharron: Yes, that's the other group that are really missing out because that's my other current specialism - students with AD(H)D, and they kind of go between myself and our study skill services support neurodiversity, mainly dyslexia, but actually quite a lot of those with AD(H)D have similar sort of issues to autistic students. They just need help, working on strategies to help them manage their lives and help them manage their conditions, and that's not always related to study related things. You know, because we're supporting students to manage their day to day routines, and also manage things like their social lives or self-esteem. The other side of university that people don't think about when they apply. They think about doing their degree in the academics, whereas good mentoring will look holistically at the whole student, and I think students with AD(H)D benefit really well from mentoring in the same way that autistic students do.
But, as you say, it's not DSA funded and I think this is the other problem mentoring has; good universities with lots of resources can provide mentoring to any student that needs it. Quite often, with the squeezing of resources, particularly as we're coming out of the pandemic, lots of universities are depending on DSA to fund their mentoring services. At my institution, I've got a certain degree of flexibility. I'm a full-time member of staff available to students who are not DSA funded, but my mentors are obviously on their zero hours contracts so they're being funded through DSA. So, it varies from institution to institution, but really mentoring is something that a lot more students than those funded through DSA would really benefit from.
Lynn: Yes, and it needs to be specialist mentoring as well.
Sharron: It does.
Lynn: Peer mentoring, when it's something like AD(H)D, and you need to have a good idea of the techniques and strategies that will really help.
Sharron: Absolutely, yeah, you could do more harm than good if you don't know what you're doing. Yeah. As with anything.
Lynn: So, actually, we wanted to talk today about the specialist mentoring network that you set up. Can you tell us a little bit about who was involved? And why it was set up.
Sharron: Yeah, it was all quite fortuitous really. So, when I left Loughborough and moved over to Leicester, one of my mentors at Loughborough (that I'd been mentoring in her career progression), she then stepped into my role at Loughborough - the autism specialist role -because I was their autism specialist there and the service manager. But she took the autism role, and we kept in touch, because it was obviously quite a big step up for her. And we started to have discussions about, you know, she wanted to provide training, I was doing training could I help her out?
And then, at the same time, I was working alongside someone who actually was the lead at De Montfort University, which is our other local university in Leicestershire. She got the job as the autism lead at De Montfort (we were working on the Reach Partnership, which came after Aim Higher). So, we were doing work in Leicestershire around supporting disabled students to go to university, and when that project finished, she became the autism lead at De Montfort.
So, we came out of the fact that I just happened to know my counterparts at the local universities, and we were all facing the same sorts of issues. We had a mentoring team, and it can be quite a lonely endeavour mentoring. It's you one-to-one with a student. Mentors are quite often… they're not full-time members of staff, they will be zero hours contracts, they're sort of floating in and out of the office. They might see their supervisor, you know, but they're not necessarily meeting up with each other. And the three of us kind of got together and thought, well, we think actually, if we pool our resources, we can put on some good mentoring training, and then give mentors an opportunity to network with each other and learn from each other. And so, we thought, because the three of us knew each other, and that we could pool resources really. So, I offered to host a meeting in Leicester, and it took off from there. The pandemic has disrupted proceedings, but until then, we were having regular meetings. I would host in meeting in January in Leicester and then my colleague would host the meeting in June, at De Montfort, and we have, between us, anything between 20 to 25 mentors that would come together, and they really like the opportunity to network with each other. I think that's been the most successful aspect of this, is that mentors feel they're part of a growing service and they're not just working in silos on their own with students. They hear that other people are having the same sorts of issues and worries and concerns about their work that other people are, again, that just makes them feel part of a team.
Lynn: Yeah, I think, also, so much of mentoring is keeping up to date with new techniques and new strategies, and hearing about things that have helped other students. It's really important to be able to network with others and actually gain that knowledge.
Sharron: Yeah, absolutely. It's funny, whenever I go to training, especially with NADP, when you go to conferences or face-to-face things. When you put on your feedback form ‘What's the most useful thing of the day?’, I always put the networking. It’s just learning from other colleagues and knowing that we all face the same sorts of issues. And, quite often I think, as autism specialists, you might be the only autism specialist in your university, and then I've got this team of mentors looking to me for all the answers, I don't have all the answers, but I know that if I reach out to my colleagues, someone else will. And I think that's the premise of networking isn’t it? I t's knowing that you haven't got to do it all on your own, you're not the only person doing that. So, you don't need to keep reinventing the wheel, you just need to look out externally and reach out and see who's around you.
Because we wanted something that was, was face-to-face, we've done it in our locality. We've got three big universities in a quite close geographical locality and, again, I think that helped as well. So, the fact that we knew each other, and the universities are quite close, and we all had reasonable sized services that we could pool resources. Then the network just evolved from that really quite easily. We also all had buy-in from our managers, and you know they will be quite happy to let the three of us go off and set up something between ourselves. We don't have many resources so we've kind of pooled what we do have, but you know I think buy-in from management is also a big help. If you've got a manager who will trust you to reach out and see who else in your local institutions will support you. That's a big help as well.
Lynn: Yeah, that kind of leads me into saying… I'm sure that there are many of our members thinking it's a great idea to set up a local network like this because funding is just so short, or shall we say non-existent, for CPD at the moment. And so, I was going to say, do you have any advice for the first steps people would need to take, to set up something similar? But I think management buy-in is definitely number one, isn't it?
Sharron: Yeah, absolutely. I'm very fortunate, I think because I've done management myself and my manager just sort of lets me go off and leaves me to it. But yeah, I think certainly if your service manager will let you take those first steps that's the first thing to do.
The second thing is then to find out who is in your locality, you know, because quite often in counties, there are more than one of the universities you tend to find they cluster universities near each other. So, I think it works easiest if it's in your locality. So, finding out who's near you, reaching out to their autism leads, that that's a good second step.
And the other thing I think that helps is pooling your resources. So, looking at what training they've done, what training you've done, and not reinventing the wheel, you don't need to do that. Often there's things already out there really. And what we've also done is that we've pulled in external people. So, at my institution, for example, Student Services. They were doing a lot of work around having difficult conversations, of working with difficult people (while I don’t think autistic people are difficult!) Well, having those difficult conversations and of what to do when people disclose things to you. So, that was a piece of work going on in our university anyway and I thought, well actually, this would be really useful for mentors. So the last face-to -face session we had in January 2020 I had the Practice Lead from Student Services in my university. She came and delivered her training to the specialist mentors, and it was something a bit different and although most of the training that we deliver, is one of the three of us practice leads in the universities, actually if you can bring external people in, whether that's external people to your service within your institution or external people from outside, if you've got local links, that helps as well because I think… the mentor training, you need to benefit from it as the practice lead as well. So, if you're always putting it on, you don't necessarily get the benefit of the of the training in the same way. So, using whoever else’s is training is out there and, as you say, I think it's, a really good way of upskilling yourself, as well.
So, we put on training that mentors ask for, and they've asked for quite a lot of mental health training. We did run a session where I did something on selective mutism because I happen to have been to a conference and I read up quite a lot about it, I made some contacts at the conference that I went to and it was quite good. You know it's that premise that a good way of knowing that you've understood something is then to teach it to somebody else. So, because I've got a selectively mute student, by doing some reading, some research around it, going to a conference, I was able to put together a presentation and present that to the mentors.
One of my other colleagues had dealt with a number of students with Tourette's and she did the same sort of thing. So, we all put on a sort of mini presentation about something that we've been dealing with that we hadn't dealt with before. And again, the mentors were all able to benefit from our having to upskill ourselves as well.
Lynn: That's great. Yeah, I can really see how it would work so well for mentors, I home educated my kids. So, I changed careers from biochemistry and I moved into note taking, mainly for science subjects, and then I did SpLD tuition, training, and mentor training and I was doing also doing exam invigilation training as well. So, I moved into all those areas but when you're remote from the university and being paid perhaps by an agency, you don't have the contacts that you need to get the training that you need either, and money to go to conferences and pay for yourself. So, I think it's a fantastic idea and I know I would have really appreciated it when I was working in in mentoring and SpLD tuition and that
Sharron: of that you've just reminded me… I mean I'm focusing on the three universities based in the network, but actually we're wider than that. So, we've got a couple of local Further Education providers and who're doing, you know, for their foundation degrees, do some DSA work. We've got Loughborough College and Brooksby Melton College, and we actually have the Learning Support Centre who one of the big non-medical help suppliers based in Leicester. They sort of grew out of the service at De Montfort University, and I happen to know Laura Cook as well, and I met her semi-socially one evening and we've got chatting about work, and I told her about the network and she was interested in that. So, they're actually part of our network. So, it's not just the universities, we recognise that the private suppliers, the product suppliers, as it were, they're all facing the same sorts of issues we are. So yeah, we've had the Learning Support Centre involved with us and Laura has offered up resources, things like using their training rooms, if we need to, and that sort of thing. So again, it's pooling resources, isn't it?
Lynn: Yeah, it's great and I am so pleased to hear that you're including Further Education as well. We have quite a few colleges as members and they find it even harder than our university members to get CPD at an adequate level for what they need. So, it's wonderful that you're forging those links as well.
Sharron: And again, that came out of people that we knew, you know. Bizarrely enough, a very good university friend of mine, his partner was actually the head of Learning Support at the college, so that's how I said to him, ‘you have an autism lead we've got this network, do you think they want to join’. And then Brooksby Melton, the lady that was the autism lead there, she was on the REACH partnership with myself and a colleague at De Montfort. So, again, it all came from people knowing each other.
It is true what they say: ‘it's not what you know, it's who you know’, but hopefully it's been mutually beneficial and if you don't know people in your local area, then you just need to go out and find out who they are. You just need to contact your local universities and just make those connections for yourself, but you do tend to find I think in this sector - because it's quite a niche sector, isn't it? - that people tend to move between local institutions. And, you know, I know certainly between Loughborough, Leicester and De Montfort, staff move between the three. I know people who've worked in, you know, two or more of the institutions. So, it's building on that really, it's building on those professional networks and friendships that you make along the way.
Lynn: Okay, now we hear an awful lot about inclusivity in our roles as disability practitioners. So, how do you think that mentoring assists with inclusivity?
Sharron: I think it can work in two ways really. I think first of all it's about supporting that student that you're working with, to support themselves and help them to take ownership over their own disability. Because they've come from school where quite often the SENCO or their parents have done everything for them, and now they're becoming an independent young adult, and they want to be included in things but they've got to learn to do that more for themselves. I think mentoring can help support young disabled people to do that, to take ownership and decide on how much inclusion that they want, because, you know, some autistic people are much more self-sufficient and want to spend, particularly the social aspect, they may want to stay in their own world, but in many ways, they want to be a part of university life. They want to get the most out of university life not just do a degree. So, mentoring can help a young person in that regard – to support them to include themselves as much or as little as they want to.
And then the other side of it, and I think this is kind of a run-off from the general disability adviser role, or the autism lead role. My mentors will then also work with departments, and again, my mentors because we're based in the institution would probably be better able to do this than other mentoring services, but I think if you're based in institution, it's about supporting that student to advocate themselves on working with a department to get them to see how they could include students more. So that comes more under the guise of Universal Design for Learning, if you like. So, I know that some of my mentors have been for meetings with departments to discuss with those departments, things like making adaptions to group work, putting reasonable adjustments in place for assessment and supporting that other side.
So, it as a disabled person myself, I always feel with a disability, you've got to meet the world halfway, I know that I take ownership over my own disability, and I know what my limits are. And I've been supported through my life to do, to recognise that, so I can advocate for myself. But, on the other hand, you also need the world to take account of the fact that you don't fit into it the same way as everybody else. So, you need them to meet you halfway. You know that's the university, isn't it? And I think mentoring is uniquely placed to see both sides of that, to see what the student needs, to see what the university needs to do, and to help them meet in the middle as it were.
Lynn: I do like that concept, that's great. I think it really helps to explain what mentoring is as well. Yeah, good one.
Sharron: I think it helps build that bridge, doesn't it? Between the two sides of that coin, because you can't sit around thinking that the world needs to bend to you because you're disabled, you've got to learn to advocate and learn those strategies, as I was saying before. As an autistic student, learn those strategies but there's an awful lot that universities do, that do put barriers in place for autistic people, and hopefully mentoring helps the university recognise that, and remove those as well.
Lynn: The other term, we're beginning to hear an awful lot about now is intersectionality. It's certainly helping us at NADP to increase understanding that one size does not fit all when it comes to disabled students not every dyslexic student is the same as every other dyslexic student. Can you talk a bit about how intersectionality affects mentoring?
Sharron: Yeah, I think as a mentor, you're not just working with an autistic person you're working with young person that may have other things going on. So, whether that's that they're from the BAME community and they've got a cultural aspect, or something that you do see a lot of within the autistic population, is the LGBT community. And certainly, I started with quite a number of transgender students, and the mentors were like, yeah, a lot of their students identified with the LGBT community, and, you know, we thought this was an area that they might benefit from training. So, we did have a training session where I actually bid for some funding and we bought in an external speaker from the LGBT Centre in Leicester, and they came to speak to us, to just widen people's understandings of the community. And then I held a session in the afternoon around: ‘what does that mean for our work with young autistic people?’ Because if it's a community that you're not particularly embedded within yourself, particularly around chat transgender issues. I think, you know, people have got their heads around that people can be can be lesbian or gay, well, I think the needs of transgender students are very different and very particular. Three of my new starters this year identify as transgender and you want to make sure that you're respecting what that means for them, and understanding what that means. And I've got a student who is questioning, and I think the nature of mentoring can become quite an intimate professional relationship that students will open up to you or tell you things that they've perhaps not told other people. So, it was very much about training our mentors to recognise what that means for a young person who's exploring their identity and that intersectionality with autism, because I think quite often in the Autistic community, it gets passed off as ‘Now you're not trans you're autistic; or you're trans but you're not autistic’. They don't see that the two… you know you've got one or the other and that's not the case. But one can affect the other.
So, we did some training around that and then very much training around sort of our boundary issues where we fit into that as mentors because I think that's a big thing if you're mentoring. You need to know the limits of your own capabilities, and then the limits of what you're expected to do as well. You can't do everything and be everything, but you can increase your understanding in order to support that young person to increase their understanding of themselves.
So yeah, I think intersectionality is a big thing. And as I say for us… I think the big one for us has been the LGBT community, but then there are those students who work with cultural issues and those students that we work with that also come from non-traditional backgrounds. You know, we get quite a lot of older people who find out they're autistic in later life, so, they're studying, not just as an autistic student but as an autistic student with a recent diagnosis, and they’re also a mature student, who will have other responsibilities. And so, yeah, I think intersectionality for any disabled student is a big thing. And I think it's important that we support mentors to understand that, so that they can support students in learning to understand themselves better.
Lynn: Yeah, I think in any of the kind of caring professions, or caring roles, that boundary issues are so important. And I think especially with these one-to-one work roles, where you're working so closely with the student, that those boundary issues are… you have to be well aware of where you're going to hold that boundary, and things like your specialist mentoring network are just so vital for people to be able to discuss that out and work out exactly where they're going to hold the boundaries because it's a personal decision on every single occasion, I think.
Sharron: Yeah absolutely and autistic people, you know they work better with clearer boundaries. I am very clear with my students, for example, they can email me anytime but they can't expect a reply from me anytime. You know, if they're having a difficult day, they can ask me if I'm free. But if I'm not, I'm not.
So, I'm very clear with them about their access to my support and advice and guidance. And that's very much something I have to install in my mentors, because you work closely with a young person, you get professionally invested in how they are and how they're doing and then, you know, there's quite an element around safeguarding and the university's responsibilities to its students. But, you know, we're only a part of that, I think when you're a mentor working with a student you can feel like it's all on you and it's not. And again, as you say, I think there can be a lack of supervision and support for mentors. And I think having regular network meetings, whether that's within the mentors or within your own institution or indeed with other local institutions, if you set up your own network, it gives those mentors opportunity to offload to each other. And as we've already said, you know, learn from the fact that other people have had the same dilemmas as you, that you're not the only person with that. I think that's really valuable.
Lynn: So okay, what's the biggest challenge you have with your specific role right now, and do you have any ideas at all on how you're going to overcome it?
Sharron: [laugh] I’m overworked and under-paid and I don’t know how I am going to resolve that! Yeah, it's workload, isn't it? It's always workload; workload and lack of resources. I mean I've been doing this work a long time, so I know not to get stressed out about workload and I know that…when I was managing you learn to delegate, don't you? You learn to start saying ‘no’ as well and to be a bit clever about what you're doing.
As for resources, that's where things like the mentoring network come in because, although it feels like it's an effort to put something on for a group of people, actually, we've all got to do CPD under the DSA-QAG regulations. We all need to do at least 10 hours a year. So, if I can get those hours in by putting on a two-hour session with my mentors, again, you're working smart aren’t you? You're pooling resources, you're being clever about what you do. And you don't have to do it all yourself. I keep coming back to that phrase, don't I, reinventing the wheel because I do think sometimes we think we've all got to go back to the beginning and start over and you don't have to, somebody out there will have done something that you can use.
The email forum that we've got - the practitioners’ network. I think that's the next step for us as a group of professionals, is to have an autism practitioners’ network, which has started with email list because if you put on the email list, somebody somewhere will have done what you're trying to do. And we're quite a good bunch, aren't we? We're quite good at sharing amongst ourselves. And again, that helps us as individuals to work smarter, because we haven't got the time in the day to keep doing things from scratch.
Lynn: Yeah, the JISCMail list for our NADP members is one of the most valuable things of membership. And we hear that time and time again because, you know, ‘I'm at a small university, and I'm the only disability adviser at the University and I've now got a blind student coming to study biology. And can anyone help?’
Sharron: Yeah, absolutely, you know, because it's quite a niche area as I've already said that, you know, we need to reach out and support each other, because you can't possibly know everything about everything. I think, manage workload is something, and then being clever about resources, that's the way I'm currently trying to manage my current role.
Lynn: Coming back totally to you for one final question then. What's something about you that most people familiar with you and your work, wouldn't know?
Sharron: My problem is a bit of an open book, everybody knows everything about me! But I think it would come back to my own disability status. I'm very upfront about the fact I am disabled. I have a visual impairment. And I think it's easier for me to share that information with people because I need people to know I can't see very well. If you're going to a conference, for example, you need the alternative formats or you need the presentations beforehand, or things like that.
I'm also working with young disabled people. I always think… I don't like that idea of being a role model. I don't like to put myself above anybody else, but I know that it's a way of empathising with young people I've worked with, by saying, ‘I genuinely understand the difficulties your having with being a disabled person. I have had them myself.’
So, you know, most people know about my disability but the one thing I would say is that I don't think people know quite how poor my sight actually is, because I think I do myself a disservice sometimes. I'm of that generation where it was more medical model, you know, I went to a special school where you couldn’t play on the fact that you couldn't see, because nobody else could see there and you just had to get on with it. You know, we didn't have large print books we just had big old magnifiers instead. So, it was very much about changing yourself to fit in with what society needs and it's not like that now, but I know for myself, I've still got that hangover.
So, I think, although I tell people I've got poor sight I do play it down quite a lot, and I don't think people realise quite how poor my sight actually is. It's always hard to explain because when somebody says, ‘Well, what can you see?’ ‘I don't know. What can you see?’ I've got no frame of reference. I've always had poor sight, so, it's like…well I don't know it's not quantifiable, but I think that's what people don't appreciate and I think it's a huge benefit to me in this role because I think you have real empathy, when you're a disabled person supporting other disabled people, because you can genuinely say ‘yes I do understand what you're going through because I've been through it myself’.
Lynn: You know we were talking about intersectionality and one size doesn't fit all. So, no disabled person is the same as any other disabled person but some of our experiences will be similar, and just gives us, as you say, that understanding, not totally, of what they're going through, but it enables us to empathise that little bit more, I think,
Sharron: And it gives me that legitimacy to say to a young disabled person, and I've said this to various students I work with, the world will not bend to your will. You have got to learn to take ownership and have some agency over your own disability and I have the legitimacy to say that because I've been through that. When you go to Uni you want to be the same as everybody else. I see it with the first years, they just want to get in, and then they realise they're not going to do it quite the same way. And I'd say, some have been through this, and by the third year, they recognise they can still fit in but in a different way. You know, and as I say, I think that's, that's where being a disabled person myself, I think has great benefit in this role.
Lynn: That is great, thank you very much for sharing your time and all your knowledge with us this morning. And, yes, it's been a really interesting session so thank you very much.
Sharron: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.