Teenagers with learning difficulties in FE colleges receive too little teaching to develop and apply new skills, a report by inspectors claims.
Ofsted's special educational needs (SEN) and disability review found that it was rare for colleges to offer provision equivalent to 25 hours over a five-day week, which was the norm outside FE. In some, students with complex special needs were only taught for 16 hours a week.
The report said: "Where young people are protected by the Disability Discrimination Act, their rights to additional provision should not depend, as they do at present, on where they are being educated. In particular, young people aged between 16 and 19 should have similar entitlements, whether they are at school or college."
"Full-time" college courses tend to be defined as 15 hours a week or more, but the inspectors said this was insufficient to develop and apply new skills.
Ofsted acknowledged that colleges faced funding difficulties, however. Where colleges were able to provide 25 hours, it was through co-operation and extra resources from social care services, or by the college making its own extra provision outside the accredited course.
Even with a post-16 assessment of learning disability, colleges and training providers told inspectors that funding may only be sufficient for three days of teaching on a full-time programme.
Work-based training providers, meanwhile, had their funding tied to the completion of courses within a specified time, which was sometimes not possible for students with disabilities. It meant some employers and training organisations were reluctant to take on students with special needs, the report said.
As a result, 16-year-olds had little choice of education or training options if they had learning difficulties or disabilities, the inspectors found.
What choices they have were limited by the additional support that was available. Inspectors gave the example of students who needed speech and language therapy, which might be available in a special school but not in work-based training, even if the workplace provision was more suitable in other ways. "This variability was often a cause of frustration for students when considering their future options," they said.
More than half of all 16 to 24-year-olds with learning difficulties or disabilities are out of education and out of work, double the rate of the rest of the population. The the numbers studying in further education have also fallen, especially on higher-level courses.
The inspectors' verdict follows criticism from the National Union of Students earlier this year, which claimed that too many disabled students were put through a "revolving door" of low-level qualifications with little chance of progression.
But they also praised some good practice in colleges, describing one has having an "exceptionally well-qualified" team of specialists, including an educational psychologist.
It had also developed its own foundation degree in "inclusive practice", validated by a university, and taught by staff at the college to colleagues as part of their professional development.
In the end, it attracted staff from local organisations ranging from schools to social care and voluntary groups. Participants carried out practical work with students with learning difficulties and were assessed in the workplace, with the help of mentors.
Another was praised for using funding from Aimhigher, the Government's widening HE participation programme. It used it to raise awareness of support for disabled students at university and for working with a local university to establish an independent accreditation centre that provided a "one-stop-shop" to help people claim disabled students' allowance.