`Match learning environment to student'

Lucy Ward reports on the far-reaching findings and recommendations of the Tomlinson Committee inquiry into what colleges offer for those with special needs.

The further education system is failing to live up to the spirit of its legal obligations towards students with special needs, according to the most comprehensive report yet on the issue.

The report of the Tomlinson Committee, set up to review colleges' provision for students with disabilities or learning difficulties, finds "clear evidence" that many groups are currently getting a poor deal.

Though the sector is complying with the letter of the law requiring it to "have regard" to students with special needs, it needs to take a broader view of its legal duties, says the study, published this week.

As well as improving support for the estimated 130,000 people with learning difficulties or disabilities already at colleges - about 5 per cent of the total FE student population - much more needs to be done to reach out to those not taking part, according to the report.

Adults with mental health problems, young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties and people with profound and multiple disabilities are among those worst served.

The committee, established by the Further Education Funding Council in December 1992, makes a series of over 50 recommendations to boost the quality of further education for students with special needs, together with a set of guiding principles.

The recommendations, which were being put before the FEFC for approval as The TES went to press, would see special needs issues moving much closer to the heart of colleges' day-to-day systems and strategic planning. The change would be achieved through a combination of FEFC support - including new funding; a massive staff development programme; coercion through the inspection regime; and new requirements on colleges backed up with penalties.

The committee also call for a loosening of funding rules so that the FEFC can pay for a wider range of courses, including those for people who are maintaining skills rather than acquiring new ones.

The overall vision set out by the Tomlinson Committee centres on the concept of "inclusive learning" - the idea that colleges should match the way they assess, teach and support each student with the way that individual learns best.

Committee chair Professor John Tomlinson said the approach would "match the learning environment to the student rather than expect the student to fit in with whatever happens to be available". It would benefit all students, not only those with learning difficulties.

The report suggests that, though the concept sounds simple, it has "profound consequences". Rather than offering education or training courses with some extra help bolted on for those with special needs, colleges need to redesign whole processes of learning, assessment and organisation.

The committee's three years of research, including college visits, original research and student workshops, found provision for those with special needs was worse than for students generally, and was given too little attention. It rarely featured in colleges' systems for strategic planning, quality assurance or data collection, and few questions were asked about what students with learning difficulties were being asked to learn.

To improve the situation, colleges not only need to pay more attention to current students' needs, but also work harder to find ways to seek out untapped demand, says the report. It acknowledges that incomplete national data on numbers of people with disabilities makes the job difficult, but concludes from its own statistical analysis: "The general impression seems inescapable: there must be many more who could benefit from education than the 130,000 now involved".

The committee recommends the FEFC helps colleges more in planning special needs provision, as well as requiring them to take more account of local needs. It should also promote collaborative planning between colleges and other local agencies such as health services and local authorities, with the aid of more joint guidance from the departments of health and of education and employment.

The FEFC could play its part in plugging gaps in data by amending its computerised data collection system - the Individualised Student Record - to provide more detail on students with disabilities, says the report.

Two further recommendations on boosting participation centre on radical changes to present funding systems. The committee suggests the Government consider establishing a single post-16 funding agency for schools and colleges to prevent unequal funding getting in the way of student choice. It also recommends the transfer of local authority discretionary awards and transport funds to colleges - a move understood to be planned by ministers.

As well as boosting participation, colleges must improve the quality of provision for students with disabilities or learning difficulties, says the study. Quality will depend on staff expertise, but the committee found existing levels of training for teachers were insufficient and "urgently need improvement".

Proposals for a major, nationally-planned staff development programme supported by earmarked national funding are among the most urgent of the report's recommendations.

The aim will be not only to train current teachers but also to transform training for those entering the profession. Managers, whose commitment to special needs is seen as vital, also require more training.

Better-trained teachers and managers will need to work in a stronger framework with higher expectations than at present, says the report.

Inspection arrangements must be strengthened to grade how far college teaching matches the learning needs of all students and to assess the quality of provision for students with disabilities.

The committee also calls on the FEFC to use the levers open to it to ensure improvements in special needs provision. Its auditing and information gathering procedures must be used to monitor progress, with the way left open for "a more interventionist policy" to bring about improvements where necessary.

The funding council should also use the way it allocates funding - the bedrock of its policy - to encourage colleges to be more inclusive, says the committee.


*a new qualification at pre-foundation level suitable for people with learning difficulties - already recommended in Sir Ron Dearing's report on qualifications for 16 to 19 year olds *regional and local co-ordination to ensure colleges and other agencies are meeting all the needs in their area *start-up funding in geographical areas where there are gaps *the FEFC to strengthen its present requirement on colleges to pay attention to the needs of people with learning difficultiesdisabilities when drawing up their strategic plans *the FEFC to consider holding colleges to account for any mismatch between their student population and the local population * the FEFC to survey the physical accessibility of colleges and publish a good practice guide on access * the government to consider a single post-16 funding agency for schools and colleges to ensure greater consistency in participation and prevent student choices being adversely affected by funding arrangements * the Government to consider transferring local authority discretionary awards and transport funds to colleges * a closer collaboration between agencies with responsibilities for students who have learning difficulties andor disabilities *a joint departmental circular from government to confirm and clarify funding and other responsibilities Quality

*college inspections to grade the extent to which college teaching matches the learning requirements of all their students ncollege inspections to grade the quality of the college's work with students with learning difficultiesdisabilities *a sector-wide, three-year quality initiative and staff development programme *a new body to advise on the accreditation of teacher training as it affects students with learning difficultiesdisabilities Funding

* a reinterpretation of the funding rules so that the FEFC can pay for a wider range of courses, including those for people who are maintaining skills rather than acquiring new ones The FEFC should: *change the basis on which it allocates funds for special equipment *allocate more funds for assessing students' needs *investigate costs of purchasing specialist support with a view to identifying standards and benchmark costs *develop its funding methodology over time so as to encourage colleges to become inclusive and support individual learners Specialist Residential Colleges

The FEFC should: ndevelop an approved list of colleges where it will fund students * ensure colleges give value for money ncontract only with colleges registered under the Registered Homes Act and which have effective complaints procedures

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