There is a wide gap between the most and least effective colleges in the way they support students with the greatest needs. And the most effective colleges tend to be those with more such students.
So concludes an HMI report on the first three years of implementing the "Beattie agenda".
This emerged after the 1999 report Implementing Inclusiveness, Realising Potential on the post-school education and training of young people who have particular barriers to their learning, such as a lack of qualifications, poor skills or disabilities.
The inspectors found that almost all colleges had taken positive steps to promote inclusiveness for those students, which was backed by pound;4.5million over three years from the FE funding council - chaired at the time by Robert Beattie, after whom the initiative is named.
But HMI said that "a significant minority" of colleges had narrowed their emphasis simply to ensure they complied with disability discrimination legislation, rather than dealing with the full range of additional student support needs.
The report nonetheless pays tribute to the role paid by the BRITE team (Beattie Resources for Inclusiveness in Technology and Education) in helping to step up access for FE students. The Scottish Further Education Unit is also praised.
The inspectorate report says, however, that more is required, particularly in the realm of staff development "both to extend an awareness of inclusiveness issues to staff throughout colleges, and to give specific training in meeting a wide range of support needs". The needs of young people with additional needs must be more adequately catered for, the report adds.
The HMI felt there was too little staff development showing how colleges could become more imaginative in changing the way they teach to suit the learning styles of vulnerable and disaffected students.
"The use of youth work and social group work approaches to stimulate and engage young students was not widespread, even where there were staff with these skills. Some colleges were slow to extend staff development in working with more vulnerable learners across the whole staff, seeing it as the province of staff of special programmes and learning support," the report said.
A number of colleges are singled out for the quality of their work, Glasgow's John Wheatley in particular. But Anniesland, Clydebank, Dundee and Cumbernauld colleges are also praised for the way they reached out to work with others in areas of deprivation.
Jewel and Esk Valley College in Edinburgh and Dalkeith also gets a special mention for its "student recovery plan," which is described as a "robust system" for identifying, monitoring and then supporting students who are at risk of dropping out.
The HMI report noted that "a key feature of inclusive colleges was their capacity to welcome and support learners with a range of barriers to learning which hindered them from benefiting from education and training programmes".
It added: "Colleges in areas where many students had such challenges were generally very effective in making appropriate assessments of their needs and conveying the college's commitment to providing a range of suitable arrangements.
"However, most colleges serving communities where such barriers were not as evident responded less effectively."
The inspectors suggested nonetheless that the gap between the most and the least effective "was only partly accounted for by differences in the requirements of the communities served".
HOW THE BEST COLLEGES DO IT
The report identified a number of features present in the best colleges, which had:
* the staff, environment and equipment to respond to additional learning and support needs;
* staff with "a thorough understanding" of barriers to learning;
* a student-centred ethos;
* inclusiveness as a central theme;
* targeted vulnerable potential learners;
* helped students before and during their courses;
* collaborated with other organisations to provide good learning opportunities;
* innovative and imaginative approaches to teaching, particularly for those "unlikely to flourish in a traditional learning environment".