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End-of-the-pier show

David Swindells argues that rhetoric is not enough to allow access to colleges for all

In 1981, Neil Kinnock made a rather apt comparison in considering the Government response to the Warnock Report's 100-plus recommendations. He likened this to Brighton Pier, "as good as far as it goes but not much of a way to get to France".

This could also be said to encapsulate the Government's Disability Discrimination Act. Education is specifically excluded from the Act, (with the exception of the writing of "disability statements", which can include or exclude whatever colleges wish). Are we to suppose this is really because the needs of the people with disabilities and learning difficulties are so well catered for elsewhere?

There are some positive aspects to the new legislation, but FE colleges will still be able to decide whether or not they wish to accept people with support needs, by excluding the area in their strategic plans for funding support.

Many have high hopes that the FEFC Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Committee being chaired by Professor John Tomlinson of Warwick University Institute of Education will include proposals that have real teeth. The committee reports this summer and many professionals are looking for recommendations that will at last take forward the thrust proposed in the Warnock Report in 1978.

Key needs that deserve attention include tackling the somewhat artificial divide between vocational and non-vocational FE provision; a wider differential banding to meet individual learning support needs and a wider interpretation of what constitutes progression.

It also needs appropriate accreditation routes; funding that takes allowance of additional learning support time for individuals; and the long-overdue need for a national strategy of staff development for all stafin how to work effectively with students with learning difficulties and disabilities.

When meeting 60 students who have learning difficulties from 10 FE colleges in Yorkshire and Humberside recently, one of their key questions was why were they expected to do so much work experience, if there are no jobs and the work they do out in industry is very often not accredited?

Experience in the US has shown that advances in real employment have been in small family firms.

It is unfortunate that the Government Disability Discrimination Bill excludes all employers who have fewer than 20 workers from discrimination in employment. The recent slashing of the Access to Work scheme will also hardly help people with disabilities and learning difficulties.

We are still hoping. Kinnock's "pier" is to be properly built. A strong, accessible bridge is needed for real equality of opportunity.

David Swindells is a lecturer in education at Huddersfield University

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