Serious concerns have been raised about the number of further education courses for students with additional support needs (ASN) that are being dropped by colleges as budget cuts hit the most vulnerable groups.
Almost one in 10 courses for ASN students closed over two years, according to figures obtained through a freedom of information request by the EIS teaching union. Of the 23 colleges that responded, the number of courses mainly or solely for ASN learners fell to 1,602 in 2012-13 - down by 140 from 2010-11.
Among colleges that were able to provide figures for 2013-14, just under half reported a further drop, although those numbers may have been affected by the regionalisation process, which resulted in college mergers.
The figures also reveal that 28 fewer staff were employed by the colleges specifically or mainly for ASN-related teaching and support in 2012-13 than in 2009-10.
The number of ASN students enrolled at colleges dropped from about 23,000 in 2010-11 to just over 18,600 in 2012-13. This downward trend continued at eight of the 12 colleges that were able to provide TESS with 2013-14 figures.
"The [information] shows that the impact of FE funding cuts on ASN provision is mixed across the country," said an EIS spokesman. "However, in some colleges, it is clear that there have been significant reductions in both the number of places available for students with ASN and in the number of courses available to these students.
"This apparent reduction in the range of provision.raises serious questions over equality of opportunity and highlights concerns over the disproportionate and negative impact of budget cuts on people with disabilities and others in need of additional support."
FE colleges cater for ASN students with a broad range of requirements, from complex needs and mental disabilities to issues that are often linked to deprivation such as health and well-being.
In recent years, the sector's overall budget has been cut significantly, from pound;580 million in 2010 to pound;522 million in 2013-14. The same level of support has been pledged for 2014-15. Because the government has asked colleges to prioritise younger learners and full-time provision focused on preparing students for employment, short courses and access courses have been hit particularly hard by the cuts.
Earlier this year, TESS reported that the number of adult learners without qualifications studying at Scottish colleges had halved since 2007-08 ("No way in to learning without a qualification", 7 March). And last year, TESS revealed that the overall number of adults with learning disabilities in colleges fell by more than 10 per cent between 2011 and 2012 ("Learning disability numbers slashed", 23 August 2013).
Gordon Maloney, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, stressed that any decrease in courses or the number of students with ASN was worrying. "It's incredibly important that our colleges and the whole of our education system is open to students from all backgrounds and ability," he said.
"The key is to ensure people from all backgrounds can get the education they need to reach their full potential. We want to see an education system that does that for all students including, and especially, those with additional support needs."
Shona Struthers, acting chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said: "While a portion of this reduction could be attributed to pooling resources and combining courses, the information suggests colleges' overall activity has fallen in recent years.
"Services for students with additional support needs are delivered in partnership with local authorities and other organisations. In recent years, all partners have had reduced budgets and this has had an impact on provision."
The response of colleges to the government's prioritisation of youth unemployment may also have had an impact, Ms Struthers added.
A government spokesman said it was "misleading to focus on the number of courses offered". The percentage of "college learning hours" for students with disabilities and ASN had increased from 19 per cent in 2006-07 to 22 per cent in 2012-13, he explained.
"As part of the outcome agreement process, the Scottish Funding Council is working closely with colleges to ensure [ASN students] are able to participate in meaningful learning," he added. "In meeting this priority, colleges pay close attention to flexible learning and teaching, individual support and carefully managed transitions."