One in five colleges cut courses for people with learning difficulties or disabilities (LDD) when funding for adult education was reduced, a long-delayed report has revealed.
The cuts divided colleges and the regional Learning and Skills Councils (LSC), as the funding bodies had said vulnerable students should not be affected, according to the report by the Institute of Employment Studies (IES).
Colleges that made cuts said reduced funds made them inevitable, either because they had to stop courses that happened to attract students with learning difficulties or because the requirements to focus on priority courses meant there was no room for some learning disability provision.
Despite this, 27 per cent of colleges still managed to increase their provision, while a further 52 per cent reported that the amount had been stable over the past 12 to 24 months.
Where provision was cut, the report said its case studies showed only "limited" alternative arrangements could be made for the students. "Providers perceived that for some learners there had been an immediate loss of skills, or failure to maintain skills," it said.
Two-thirds of the institutions that made cuts did not even consult their local authorities, which share responsibility for the education of under- 25s with learning disabilities.
The report is particularly embarrassing since in 2007 ministers unveiled a 20-point plan to improve access to education for people with LDD up to the age of 25, calling it a new "entitlement to learning".
Bill Rammell, then further education minister, said: "If education is a right, it must be for all, whatever their disabilities."
It aimed to end the dispute between the departments of education, employment and health over who was responsible for funding provision for people with LDD, and have annual reviews to ensure they were not overlooked.
Chris Banks, chairman of the LSC, said in 2007: "This year, we made it a condition of funding for all providers that they should at least maintain, and ideally increase, the number of places for learners with LDD." In the event, this condition was ignored by one in five.
Peter Lavender, acting chief executive of the adult education body Niace, acknowledged that the majority of colleges had maintained or improved their provision, but said the substantial numbers that had seen cuts were of great concern.
"It's shocking that 20 per cent of providers cut their provision, as we understand it, because of a shift of mainstream funding from adult learning," he said. "Where provision was cut, most providers weren't able to arrange alternative provision. What happened to them? It doesn't bode well for these two agencies and local authorities coming together to provide for all these needs. It doesn't feel like it is very well safeguarded."
He added that the failure of most colleges making cuts to involve the local authority in the search for alternative provision made him "very anxious for the future", when councils will have a greater role in funding provision.
Mr Lavender also criticised the LSC for delaying the report in an attempt to minimise its impact. The survey it is based on was carried out in early 2008.
"There's been no press release for this report - it's been slipped out without anyone being told," he said. "And it's two years old, so they can say it's out of date and things have moved on. IES is a respected research organisation and they finished the report at least a year ago."
An LSC spokeswoman said that the report was delayed due to changes in structures and staffing associated with the creation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) last June.
"Our allocations for the 201011 academic year have identified that provision for LDD is a priority for us and funds have been allocated on that basis," she said. "However, it remains the responsibility of individual colleges and providers to determine their curriculum offer, within the budget allocated to them."
She said that the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) had ringfenced money for LDD to ensure that the level of additional learning support remained consistent regardless of whether a learner is the responsibility of a local authority or the SFA after April this year.
This report comes at a time when adult education is set to receive more cuts, again with an assurance that people with LDD would be protected.
The Skills Investment Strategy revealed a pound;144 million cut to developmental learning - 43 per cent of its budget this year. It includes provision for people with learning difficulties but BIS said there was sufficient money to maintain their courses - as had been promised before.
"Developmental learning includes funding for activity not covered in other funding lines," it said. "The amounts set out for 201011 will enable the SFA to continue to protect the volumes of learning for learners with learning disabilities andor disabilities."
The report recommended more consistent, clear advice and consultations from regional LSCs, better partnership working involving local authorities and better advice to individuals with learning difficulties by their providers.
But with funding going through so many upheavals in the creation of two new funding bodies and the expanded role for local councils, it remains to be seen whether people with learning difficulties will lose out again.
20% - Percentage of colleges that cut their provision for students with LDD.