Colleges given one-in-five target for disabled staff

And principals are under pressure to improve their working conditions

Principals are to be given five years to improve their treatment of disabled staff after the Government admitted there had been "systemic failure".

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will require colleges to set a target for increasing the number of disabled staff, with the eventual aim that they will make up almost one-fifth of the college workforce - a reflection of the working-age population.

The move follows a report from Niace, the adult education body, in response to which the department said: "We are very aware from the report's findings that there are real problems. The findings are stark. The report identifies what is believed to be systemic failure, and we need a system response to ensure rhetoric is turned to action."

Despite legislation 10 years ago to prevent discrimination against disabled people in the workplace, just 4 per cent of college workers have a disability, compared with 19 per cent among the general working-age population.

Ministers accepted all Niace's recommendations for colleges and other FE organisations. As a result, Niace expects to see more disabled people recruited to colleges. More of them are being encouraged to train for and take on management roles. In addition, all staff, particularly managers, should be trained in disability equality.

Both Niace and the department aim to end the stigma that surrounds a person declaring a disability. They want to remove the fear that it could harm career prospects.

Paul Mackney, associate director of Niace, said: "We are delighted at the warmth of this response, and we are hoping that it will help to maintain and accelerate momentum for ensuring that learning providers implement the recommendations of the report.

"The emphasis given to the implementation of leadership from the top means that no chief executive can ignore their responsibility."

The reluctance to commit to a timescale was not a concern at this stage, he said. The most important first step was to help more people feel comfortable with disclosing any disabilities to their employer.

"We are starting from a point where there is significant under- disclosure. All we know is we don't get many people disclosing and we need to remove the barriers for disabled people to get on," he said.

Mr Mackney said that Lifelong Learning UK, the FE sector skills council, had set up an implementation group which would ask principals and heads of other FE organisations to sign a commitment to improve the treatment of disabled staff. Colleges will be given training to help them improve.

"It isn't as if people wake up in the morning thinking, `How can I kick someone when they're down today?' It's a combination of unintentional actions, which mean that disabled people don't get into FE, or a real feeling of incompetence in how to deal with the issue," he said.

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