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Encouraging students with disabilities

The transition from school to college for students with special educational needs or learning difficulties and disabilities is a confusing, demanding and often stressful experience.

Leaving school at 16 or 18 and entering a more adult world with choices of options from education, training, work, community living or "day services" is conflicting enough.

Choosing providers from the statutory, independent, voluntary, charitable or commercial sectors can create an intolerable burden on learners who are already confused by an array of educational options.

Then there is the Connexionscard, educational maintenance allowances, benefit changes and other support incentives which each carry a pressing requirement to select a course of study at a particular college for a given period with a variety of accreditation, examination or assessment procedures. The confusing array of qualifications is not helpful.

Transition planning should be smooth, phased and coherent.

Students and parents are confused when a full-time course does not mean every day or sessions are split or on different sites with staggered start times. The word flexible can have many interpretations and applications in further education.

Often, students with learning difficulties do not know about the 140 assessment (which is similar to a statement of special educational need), the lack of specialist placements in independent colleges and the need to apply for some at least three years in advance.

The recent announcement of funding reform to benefit the disabled will not have the slightest effect if the money is spent on new assessment procedures, extensive tracking, monitoring and administration.

To encourage learners with disabilities, the increased and modified funding should be allocated to employing well- qualified, experienced, trained and motivated teaching staff. Learning support and welfare staff, including medical support, need to be engaged to assist specific marginalised groups of learners who may have profound difficulties and disabilities that, at present, in many colleges, enjoy only token provision.

Introductory programmes have proved popular along with access to some part-time courses. These invariably have the encouragement of feeder schools but can be costly in staffing and financial terms. Issues to do with double funding need to be resolved where schools are seen to receive money for their pupils and colleges claim as well.

The irony of this situation is that most colleges could not cope without schools' input and involvement. Double funding should be redefined in these circumstances because joint additional funding is an introductory aid to the world of further education and training.

Learning difficulties and disabilities (LDD) provision at 16 to 19 is generally good, but for post-19 school-leavers, the situation can be difficult to comprehend. Full-time, part-time, whole-year, termly, evening, residential, specialist, accredited, adult education, short, skills-based, block, social, leisure, recreation, basic skills, and vocational programmes of study are just a few of the plethora of options on offer. This confusion is compounded when centres of excellence in vocational education (CoVEs) are thrown into the pot for consideration.

Colleges are in a unique position to provide relevant, coherent, progressive and responsive courses for people with LDD if they are allowed, encouraged and supported to work in close collaboration with schools to create programmes of study and training that reflect demand and need.

With approximately 160,000 students with disabilities already in further education, sensitive transition from school will encourage more to access relevant learner-led and defined educational offers.

Students with a range of learning difficulties andor disabilities may not always be economically active or add dramatically to the nation's work-force or the world of academia but can be, or are, good citizens who can lead more independent lives, be socially accepted and contribute to the diversity that makes up communities with the engagement and support from the further education sectors.

Len Parkyn Head of Cherry Trees Further Education Centre Brighton and Hove East Sussex

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