The Learning and Skills Council has announced it is conducting a major review of the planning and funding of education and training for special needs students.
The aim is to produce a national strategy to meet the growth in demand, and to expand the range of options on offer to meet the needs of learners in these groups.
Caroline Neville, LSC's director of learning, said the review will focus on concerns that the post-16 sector does not always do enough for learners with special needs.
She said : "This is an important review. There is an increasing demand for post-16 provision for learners with learning difficulties and disabilities that, under the current arrangements, is not always met.
"We are committed to ensuring that courses for this group centre on the needs of individual learners and provide greater opportunities to access education and training across the sector.
"The outcome of the review will enable us to work in partnership with other agencies and learning providers to build flexible packages that meet the aspirations of these individuals."
A national steering group has been set up to oversee the review, with representatives from further education colleges, school sixth forms, specialist colleges, work-based learning and adult and community learning.
The steering group is scheduled to present an interim report to the LSC in December and a final report in August 2005. There will then be a period of consultation on its recommendations.
It has already begun initial analysis of the issues and will hold a structured consultation with learners in January.
Judith Norrington, director of learning at the Association of Colleges, is a member of the steering group. She said: "We welcome the review. It is important that all our students get a proper deal.
"For many colleges it is the norm to work with special needs students. Some of our institutions have 15 per cent of students getting special support.
"Colleges do much more work in this area than has been recognised, but there is always more that can be done."
She plans to recommend a change in funding arrangements to allow colleges to claim in advance for providing special needs support rather than retrospectively as is the case now.
The LSC has a statutory duty to fund courses for learners with learning difficulties andor disabilities under the Learning and Skills Act 2000.
Specifically, under section 13 of the Act, it has a duty to consider securing a residential placement for such learners where no appropriate alternative provision is available to meet their need.