The Further Education Council has a legal responsibility for assessing the quality of further education in England. It is committed to inspecting each college once every four years. Its inspection framework, Assessing Achievement, reflects its responsibilities towards students with learning difficulties andor disabilities within further education.
Almost all further education colleges now make some kind of provision for students with special needs. Some provide for a wide range of students: school leavers, adults, students with disabilities heading for higher education, and those working at a more basic level on specially devised programmes.
One student commented that "the college has a system which enables me to get extra help - such as extra sessions on using information technology, spelling and writing essays. There is specialist help for people with dyslexia and individual help with numeracy.
"The college offers different ways of learning - opportunities for real work experience, using video, tape, information technology, individual learning packages. I can take longer over the course; study in small units and repeat these, if necessary."
Where support for learning is most effective, it is often organised as part of a college-wide support system, catering for a range of students beyond those traditionally labelled as having learning difficulties.
In other colleges the prospectus says that it welcomes everyone in the community, but is vague about how it will meet particular needs.
A small number of FEFC sector colleges are also catering for students with complex and profound learning difficulties. Where support needs cannot be met by sector colleges, well over 100 non-sector specialist residential colleges provide placements for some 2,000 FEFC-funded students a year. Most are referred to the council from LEAs. Usually these students require a residential programme to help them become more adult and learn to live more independently.
The FEFC has carried out an inspection programme in these establishments to check the quality of the education funded by the council. The FEFC recognises that programmes for these students requirerequire the same rigorous scrutiny as courses in sector colleges. The independent colleges have welcomed inspection by specialist FEFC inspectors and have worked with the Council's inspectorate through NATSPEC - the national organisation of independent specialist colleges, to develop inspection arrangements derived from the procedures used for sector colleges.
The colleges receive 100 copies of their inspection report to distribute as they wish to potential students, parents, LEA departments, disability organisations and other interested parties, and to meet any requests for copies which they may receive.
One of the most challenging issues facing colleges which provide for students with special needs is how to achieve a balance between offering nationally accredited qualifications which recognise students' achievement, while at the same time providing them with individual learning programmes which meet their needs. In some cases, colleges' perceptions of the demand for qualifications appear to be driving the curriculum, rather than the learning needs of students.
At the heart of ensuring high standards is a teacher's understanding of how students learn. The most successful teachers have high expectations of themselves as teachers and even higher ones of their students.
There is, however, some evidence of poor practice: "Although I did lots of assessment tests, the outcomes did not provide the basis for my individual programme. I was just put on the course."
Staff attitudes to students is a key factor, and the most successful encourage students to take responsibility for their own work. Where this occurs the following kinds of comment from students are less common: "Some teachers treat us like babies. We hate being called 'special needs'. I'm nearly 19 years old. I want to be like other students."
"Because I am blind I have to rely on my tutors for what is presented to me because I have no independent access to appropriate learning materials. "
"My assertiveness is often labelled as a behaviour problem."
Despite such comments, there is much good practice. The most skilful teachers of students with special needs are those who can meticulously break learning down into small steps. Such teachers also use straightforward and unambiguous language and turn the need for constant repetition into enjoyable learning experiences. At best they regard finding solutions to learning difficulties as a challenge, rather than describing students as a problem.
One barrier to high-quality provision is the lack of adequately trained specialist teachers capable of dealing with those who have complex learning needs. Many staff have no specialist qualification; others have only the general CG 730 teaching qualification.
"We are taught as a whole class instead of as individual students, everyone hurrying to catch up or waiting for the rest. A lot of what I do I have done before in school."
A number of thorny issues such as this are being considered by the specialist committee on learning difficulties and disabilities established by the FEFC and chaired by Professor John Tomlinson. An indication of the level of interest in this area of work is that, so far, the committee has received 1,000 submissions of evidence, many from individuals and others from colleges and national organisations.
The committee is looking at the results of inspection in an attempt to identify what makes for a good match between the students' learning needs and their learning environment. Students tell us much about their FE experiences. The committee has an unprecedented opportunity to listen to them.
* Merillie Vaughan Huxley is the Further Education Funding Council's Senior Inspector