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Beyond the labels that exclude

Clare Jenkins reports on the Tomlinson inquiry into how FE caters for students with disabilities or learning difficulties.

First - in 1978 - there was the Warnock Report, which looked at school provision for pupils with special educational needs. Next year comes the Tomlinson Report, reviewing provision for students with disabilities andor learning difficulties (the new phrase) in colleges of further education.

The report, commissioned by the Further Education Funding Council and produced by a committee chaired by Professor John Tomlinson of Warwick University, will start to be written up in July. Until it's published, in autumn 1996, the committee are refusing to pre-empt their findings. But Professor Tomlinson does admit to having discovered some "splendid" examples of good practice, not just in colleges, but also in day care centres, hospitals, outreach and home care programmes. And there are staff in both specialist and non-specialist colleges who are "absolutely marvellous - dedicated and highly motivated". "But, "he adds cautiously, "they're not necessarily getting it all right."

So, in the three years the report is taking to compile, FE colleges, especially specialist ones, are holding their breath to see whether they pass muster - and if not, what they should be doing about it. Because, as well as recommending how the FEFC can best fulfil its legal responsibilities to this group of students, the committee will also advise on such issues as college planning, policy, provision, quality and funding. To date, inspections have been carried out, evidence collected (from students, carers, staff and other agencies - more than 1,000 responses altogether), existing provision mapped out, gaps identified, and recommendations being discussed. As a result, certain key principles have been worked out which are being trialled in 20 colleges this term. "The main principle," says Professor Tomlinson, "is to get away from the deficit model of special educational needs, which looks at the individual and says, 'You're short on this or that'. It makes the individual feel it's their fault."

The Warnock Report stated that categorising students as "handicapped" and "non-handicapped" was a mistake. Professor Tomlinson supports this view, but still finds fault in the 1992 Act which, he says, "concentrates still on what is wrong with the student, that is, what additional support they require to help them learn like everyone else, rather than what is wrong with their learning environment".

The FEFC's "inclusive" model - which shifts the emphasis from the student, whether disabled or not, to individual learning processes and the creation of appropriate learning environments and programmes - is the one he supports. "It doesn't look at a person with a crutch under their arm and say: 'Right you're in that group.' You might have had an accident, you might have a high IQ, you might have a degree, or you might have no qualifications. The crutch is probably the least relevant point. So careful assessment of a person's abilities and needs is a starting point."

Committee member Deborah Cooper, director of SKILL, the national bureau for students with disabilities. agrees. "It's for colleges to find out what each student needs in order to succeed. They need a process for identifying student goals and for ensuring needs are met to achieve those goals."

The first challenge to the committee - which is made up of managers and co-ordinators from FE and independent colleges, the voluntary sector, TECs, social services, and LEAs - was that of definition. The 1944 Education Act named 13 types of disability. After Warnock, the reference was to special needs. The 1992 Further Higher Education Act speaks of "disabilities andor learning difficulties". Deborah Cooper approved the change,"because they're first and foremost students. There's nothing special about them. They're just different".

Professor Tomlinson supports that view: "We want to move away from labelling individuals. There is little use in labels if they exclude or disenfranchise. " Or, indeed, if they assume a homogeneity of disability. As Professor Tomlinson points out, the only common characteristic is "that they require an individually designed learning environment to be able to benefit fully from the education which is on offer".

"Colleges," says Deborah Cooper, "ask people to state whether they're disabled. But students often don't recognise disability. What does it mean, anyway? You could be registered disabled with the social services department, with your Aunt Sally, or whatever. It's not a recognised definition."

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