Editor's comment

24th March 2006 at 00:00
As we report on page three of this week's FE Focus, it is not known whether Sarah Pendlebury will ever be able to communicate effectively, other than with her specially trained helpers and immediate family.

Civil servants are deciding whether to grant the funding for the extra year she needs at Beaumont, a residential specialist college, which would cost Pounds 100,000. A year in which, it is hoped, the staff will be able to find just one part of her body over which she has sufficient control to operate a simple button.

That, in the jargon, is her "learning aim".

Of course, her tuition won't contribute to meeting any of the Government's most publicised targets for post-16 education.

So, instead of enjoying an automatic entitlement to a continued place at college, Sarah is left to stare out on a world which is still deciding whether it cares enough to write that cheque. And eventually, the agony of waiting for a decision will be over for Sarah's mother.

Even if Sarah's needs are met, there are many more people for whom the prospect of a specialist college place will not be forthcoming. For these students, regardless of the extent of their disability, access to this kind of education is strictly first come, first served. These are the people who have been left behind in the learning-and-skills revolution. Not for them the "equality" and "diversity" about which we hear so much.

Unlike the funding of mainstream education, the lack of resources for our most severely disabled young adults is not another question of financial priorities. It is a test of our humanity. Severely disabled students like Sarah may be expensive to cater for but they are extremely few in number.

If Beaumont were allowed to take four times as many students, it would still be spending less than many mainstream FE colleges. What is required is not a series of long-winded reports full of carefully chosen, inoffensive and ineffectual words.

Many of the parents of these potential students will have taken the decision to continue with their pregnancies despite knowing the disabilities their children were going to suffer. Ruth Kelly, our Catholic education secretary, will no doubt approve of the choices those parents made. We ask her this question. What should society do next? Should it hold out its hand or should it continue to turn its back? No doubt we will find the answer in the FE white paper next week.

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