The plight of young people with learning difficulties and disabilities once they pass school-leaving age is a classic example of neglect being more costly than education, not just for them but for the whole country. With an estimated 130,000 inside further education, at least that number again are in forced idleness, many trapped in the physical prisons of their own homes because they have fallen through the net between the education, training, health and welfare systems. It is a condemnation of all these that the size of the problem has not been estimated until now.
This has been achieved by Professor John Tomlinson in his study of special needs in FE (pages 27,28), launched this week with a warning: "It is our evidence that if opportunity for education and training is given them, they can work. Not only do we gain the product of their work and taxation but we lose dependency costs."
The 1978 Warnock Committee report on special educational needs was a watershed for tens of thousands of children who barely a decade before might well have been deemed ineducable. Lady Warnock's children have been banging at the doors of colleges for some years. Some have opened their doors, some have installed wheelchair ramps to make access easier. Only a minority have gone further and reshaped the curriculum. Too many have left the doors all but shut.
But some have registered thousands on to the wrong courses under pressure of legislation. The 1993 Further and Higher Education Act leaves courses cashless unless they carry an exam, which is too often inappropriate for those with special needs. The fact that some colleges have transformed provision, however, means all could and should do the same, as the Tomlinson committee report to the Further Education Funding Council eloquently testifies.
While Tomlinson may lack the statutory force of an Act, the law has too often proved a millstone, dragging provision down to the minimum that cash-strapped local education authorities can get away with. The Tomlinson recommendations should add weight to the 1993 Act requirement for colleges to ensure "adequacy and sufficiency" for all entitled to FE, but what will give them force is his insistence on regional planning - an emphasis now backed by the FEFC.
Much can be achieved within existing resources: better collaboration between schools, colleges and Training and Enterprise Councils, co-operation between the health, education, voluntary and special needs support agencies (already happening in the best areas), a rethink of the curriculum and a reform of the FE funding methodology. Of the 50 far-reaching recommendations, Professor Tomlinson gives two priority: staff training and improved inspections, supporting his view of "inclusive learning." A worthwhile start on these could cost just Pounds 8 million of a Pounds 3 billion annual FEFC budget.
Professor David Melville, the FEFC's new chief executive, has promised to "use all the weapons available through the funding methodology", but he sends a lightly coded message to colleges: be seen to make reparations now, or don't expect more from the Treasury next autumn. Many colleges must stand guilty as charged of neglect, in the face of the evidence cited. And when the real additional costs are identified, the sector must articulate them clearly through its single voice, the newly merged Association of Colleges. Here is a real chance for its chief executive, Roger Ward, to make good his promise to fight and lobby ministers for essential resources.
As Tomlinson recognises, it has been the historic mission of FE to enfranchise those people who have been excluded before. Those whose education has been held back by disabilities need continuing opportunities more than most. Such a vision is not just an ideal, it makes economic sense too.