The needs of students with severe learning difficulties are being overlooked because of government demands to fund only those courses that are accredited for a nationally recognised qualification, say principals of specialist colleges.
As the deadline for responses to the Further Education Funding Council's circular on the Tomlinson committee's "Inclusive Learning" report passed this week, the National Association of Specialist Colleges (NATSPEC) was lobbying hard for extra funding to keep courses for profoundly disabled students.
The association represents 48 mainly residential educational establishments catering for nearly 2,000 physically and mentally disabled young adults. It wants a change in the law on criteria for funding "independent living" courses.
These courses can be a stepping-stone back into mainstream education for hundreds of students with learning difficulties. But colleges are afraid that a clause in the funding arrangements could make potentially able students ineligible.
Concern focuses on the demand for students to show progression in their learning. At present, once their special needs statement expires at the age of 19, students with profound learning difficulties on courses that might maintain or transfer their skills do not qualify for funding under Schedule 2j of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.
This clause, highlighted in a recent court case (see story below left) and the subject of debate in the House of Lords this month, should be made more flexible to give less able students a chance to build on their abilities, says NATSPEC.
Mike Smith, chairman of NATSPEC and principal of the Star Centre in Cheltenham, says the rights of disabled people to education, established in the 1971 Education (Handicapped Children) Act and reinforced by the Warnock report seven years later, have still not been fully recognised.
He predicts legal challenges to the FEFC from disgruntled parents whose children fail to gain funding. "The appeal mechanism has only been set up fairly recently and is only just starting to be used," he said. "But parents I have spoken to are very motivated and they will challenge and challenge again. It's a question of entitlement."
Around 20 per cent of students at the Star Centre have come there after unhappy experiences in integrated education. "We have to pick them up again. Students here want to go into mainstream further education, but they won't be able to equip themselves to do it without our help. Tomlinson talks about inclusion - we have got to do it."
Sue Preece, principal of Bridge College in Stockport, has been collating NATSPEC members' responses to the circular.
"The consensus is that while Tomlinson has our whole-hearted support, the issue that keeps coming forward is that with Schedule 2j courses it is very difficult to prove progression for young people with profound learning disabilities," she said.
"Some of them are being put on courses that aren't relevant to them in order to trigger funding. But it is the law that's constraining them, not the FEFC - they are the keepers of the public purse and have to be accountable." Defining progression for these students in terms of qualifications or vocational courses is a mistake, she says.
"Thirty years ago many of these young people would have been described as 'ineducable', but that is not so. Progress is very small and has to be measured very carefully - but it is there.
"When you consider the thousands and thousands of pounds invested in education of young people, it seems a dreadful shame that at the age of 19 for some of them it has to stop."
Treloar College in Alton, Hampshire, caters for 145 young people with complex physical disabilities and learning difficulties. It offers tuition up to Advanced GNVQ and A-level, often in conjunction with the local FE college.
Sixty per cent of students at the college go on to mainstream education, something of which principal Graham Jowett is proud. He says this would be impossible without the additional support a specialist college provides.
"Skills for adult living are absolutely vital," he said. "We are trying to prepare students for independent living - and that doesn't necessarily follow a linear progression through educational qualifications."
Residential colleges have a "24-hour extended curriculum" and innovative work in adapting technology to enhance students' capabilities "open up all sorts of opportunities", he said.
"We can give them the confidence and independence to go into mainstream education. I would like to see something that's recognised as a life skills qualification and is included in Schedule 2j."
Deborah Cooper, director of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with learning difficulties and disabilities, agrees.
"Progression is what education is all about," she said. "However, for some people, the scale of that progression is measured in very small amounts. They may learn to hold a cup for five seconds, instead of dropping it as soon as they are handed it.
"The difficulty is in measuring and accrediting that progression so that it meets the needs of a funding body. We need a wide ranging review of the way in which schedule 2j funding is interpreted."
Students with deteriorating conditions who cannot realistically take on vocational courses should not be denied the opportunity to learn to look after themselves better, according to Chris Berry, NATSPEC secretary and director of Weelsby Hall in Grimsby.
"If you have somebody with severe learning difficulties, their prospects of employment are fairly limited and so their focus is going to become independent," he said. "Vocational qualifications are just not practical. "
The educational expectations of students with profound learning difficulties, heightened by improvements in communication technology to help them learn, have not been matched by provision, he added.
"The whole point of inclusive learning is that people are not disadvantaged by any disability they might have. The bottom line is that for many of the most disadvantaged students, the requirement that they progress upwards and onwards is just not a possibility."
The FEFC will consider responses to the circular in May.