Boomtime for adult learning advances
Special needs students in further education could see an end to years of marginalisation if some new ideas live up to their potential.
A Pounds 23 million basic skills training scheme begins at 50 training and enterprise councils next month. And this summer should see the publication of the long-awaited Tomlinson Report, which pledges to do for students with learning difficulties and disabilities what Baroness Warnock did in the early 1980s for schoolchildren with special needs.
A document from the Government's Disability Unit on the transition from education to work is also pending, just at a time when the Disability Discrimination Act comes into force, giving handicapped people new rights in the workplace.
Last week saw the launch of two staff development packs. They are a clear sign of an upsurge of interest in provision for adults with learning difficulties.
The packs, Towards Inclusion and Enabling Learning, produced by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education after two years of research and pilot studies, are the first resources to target a neglected set of students.
"There's a gap here that's not been filled and a crying need for staff development materials in this area," said NIACE development officer Jeannie Sutcliffe.
She said that during her research the tutor of a literacy class for adults with special needs had greeted her saying: "It's all right - I've been trained to work with people who are mental". Another member of staff defined integration as "having them in the same building".
"That's an example of the sort of attitude we need to change. Hopefully these packs will be a way of promoting positive attitudes."
The packs, produced with backing from the Department of Health and the Baring Foundation, look at all aspects of special needs provision, from policies and funding to inter-agency approaches and student support.
They include case studies, group and individual activities, information and resources. Both packs will be validated for use through the Open College Network, the agency whose seal of approval is most widely used to set standards.
Yale College in Wrexham, which helped pilot the Towards Inclusion pack, found it revolutionised its approach and improved what had been somewhat paltry service.
"We felt our policy was under-developed and we needed to do something about it," said college co-ordinator Debrea Lewis.
"We had no action plan, no resources and we hadn't got a clue where we were going."
Delegates at the one-day conference identified several common obstacles to improved special-needs serv ice, including access to buildings and syllabuses and a gap between policy and practice.
The latter should improve with the requirement under the Disability Discrimination Act that all colleges produce a disability statement available to students which will outline facilities and highlight areas of need.
A common theme to emerge was that, in the absence of any legal obligation, good practice was often confined to colleges where senior management had made special needs a priority.
There was also poor liaison with other agencies in health and social services. The Disability Unit publication is designed to provide a framework for better communication between agencies involved in the care and education of adults with learning difficulties.
Deborah Cooper, director of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, said that these developments were putting the needs of her members back on the agenda.
"I think things are looking up. There is increased professionalism, more students are going to college, and there is growing recognition of the importance of staff development.
"Colleges on the whole are very keen to do things right but need more information on how to do it. They are ashamed that inspections have showed that they are not doing as well as they might.
"Staff development is a crucial part of this. We know that provision isn't enormously good. There are some excellent examples but there's also rather more poor work than in other areas.
"Colleges cannot discriminate against disabled people as employees but it is still legal to discriminate against disabled people in education. They can say we don't want people like that.
"But it is significant that the Department of Health has recognised their responsibilities towards that group of students and are looking at ways of making that provision better.
"Ultimately it is still the college's responsibility. They have no legal requirement and the only power that the Department of Health has is one of persuasion."
She welcomes the introduction of disability statements ("I think they will be jolly useful") and she sees the coming report of the Tomlinson committee, of which she is a member, as an important catalyst.
Anne Weinstock, chief executive of Rathbone CI, a charity for adults with special needs, believes that funding for the TEC basic skills programme is a reason for optimism.
"Our research shows that actual qualifications are fifth or sixth on employers' lists of requirements and what they are really looking for is core skills.
"The research could have been rubbished by the Government - it has happened before - but the Government has admitted that there is a problem at the lower end of the ability range.
"This is wonderful, a move in the right direction."