Inconsistent funding across Scotland may mean that students with the most severe barriers to learning miss out on a place in further education, according to the Scottish Executive. One college has described the position as a "national scandal".
The Executive has now launched a consultation exercise to find out what is happening and how access for this group can be improved.
It is providing local authorities with pound;5.4 million in the current year for bursaries and travel for students who attend non-incorporated colleges, such as those in Orkney and Shetland, or those outside Scotland.
The consultation, "Finding Practical Solutions to Complex Needs", asks for views on whether local authorities should lose their control over these funds, in favour of an organisation such as the Student Awards Agency for Scotland.
A small survey of authorities three years ago found that just under half had a general policy of not funding FE students. But it was not clear whether this applied to students with complex additional support needs.
Some authorities provide funding for young people with complex needs to take specialist courses locally or in England. But, according to the Executive, "there are many areas of the country where there is no such local authority provision".
It states: "Indeed for a small but significant group of young people in Scotland, the most appropriate further education provision appears to be at one of a number of specialist colleges in England. In view of this, and our commitment to ensuring that everyone has the chance to learn, regardless of their background or current personal circumstances, we must find a way of supporting these students."
An estimated 10-15 students travel to England for specialist post-16 education, but ministers believe many more cannot even do that because of inconsistent funding practices among authorities.
England has a number of specialist colleges with residential accommodation which allows students access to education, care and therapy; there are none in Scotland. One suggested solution is that the existing funding should be split into two, one to help students who take up a place in England and the other to allow FE colleges to improve their facilities.
The students involved would be those requiring multi-agency support, intensive therapies during the day, one-to-one support and 24-hour care.
The Executive is concerned that students who cannot find a specialist place in Scotland or across the border may opt for a college "which is either not sufficient in quality or does not fully meet their needs".
Ministers want colleges to link up with health boards, local authorities and other agencies to support such students. "By adopting a partnership approach, the Executive believes that the needs of the vast majority of students can be met within Scotland's further education colleges." This may still not be enough for students with the most complex needs, however.
The Executive seems to have little idea of the extent of the problem, beyond noting that around 700 young people leave special schools each year.
Between 3 per cent and 7 per cent of those do not move on to further education, training or employment.
Skill Scotland, the national bureau for students with disabilities, believes it no longer makes sense for funding to come from local authorities, since this leads to a "postcode lottery". It wants a national system.
The bureau points out that the Disability Discrimination Act directs colleges to anticipate the needs of disabled learners "so that disabled people will increasingly experience no disadvantage".
Motherwell College, despite winning plaudits for its special needs provision, believes the position for students with the most complex needs is "at best regrettable, at worst a national scandal". It suggests specially resourced provision, a centre in Scotland, or a place at a specialist college. Residential settings may be necessary.
Elmwood College has come up with a solution, but freely admits it would not work in every college. Its student development team offers an individual programme or a place in small groups of eight to 12 students. The college also has an inclusiveness manager, who has built links with social services staff.
It believes its location, on the outskirts of Cupar in Fife, and its size, with only 850 full-time students, help. It also has the advantage of being set in its own large grounds, with residential provision and three houses which are used for supported accommodation.
WHY DID MY CHILD HAVE TO MISS OUT?
'I am the parent of an 18-year-old daughter with complex learning needs. As she has no speech, my greatest concern for her future is that she will be unable to communicate her needs and feelings in a way recognised by carers, friends and those who are involved in her well-being.
I started to look at the provision in Scotland three years before she would leave school in 2004. It was extremely difficult to access information (and) I was unable to find a course which had the teaching of communication skills as the base for all other skills on offer, and as the key subject but integrated throughout the college day.
I did find one such course at a highly regarded specialist college in England. It was not my wish for my daughter to spend several years so far from home, but the opportunity to acquire important skills was of greater importance for her future in general. She was offered a place, despite a high demand for places and a large waiting list.
I applied on her behalf for funding from our local council. We waited almost five months for a decision regarding the application and, during this time, lost the college place due the demand from already funded students. The council felt that the local provision was adequate.
My daughter has now had one year of local provision. She accesses an elaborated school curriculum at college, which is not entirely suited to her level of needs and lacks the expertise required in the area of teaching communication skills.
She requires immersion in a communications-related environment, with access to aids and technology. Had she been a young person without a disability, then her post-school choices would have been varied and appropriate to her needs and wishes.
I feel that having centres of excellence in Scotland would be the optimum situation but, failing this, a central funding body which provided a funding decision in a fair and consistent way would be the best solution.'