Adult students with learning disabilities risk being squeezed out of colleges after new figures revealed that the number of them enrolled on a further education (FE) course fell by more than 10 per cent in a year, charities have warned.
Statistics showed that the overall number of adults with learning disabilities in Scottish colleges fell by almost 300 to 2,407 in 2012, with the decrease concentrated in part-time provision.
Colleges are expected to focus on full-time courses to give students the best chance of gaining employment, but many people with learning disabilities are unable to attend full-time.
The fall is the latest setback for students with learning disabilities: in October 2011, TESS revealed that part-time college places for these students had been cut by more than a third.
Peter Scott, chief executive of charity Enable Scotland, said the figures highlight "diminishing opportunities" in FE for people who have a learning disability, and who, "like anyone else, want to learn, work, earn a living and fully participate in society". He added that the trend has to be addressed by policymakers and the social care sector.
"(FE) courses are crucial in terms of gaining employment. College courses also help people become more confident through learning new skills," Mr Scott said. "Furthermore, colleges give people who have a learning disability the opportunity to engage with their local community and spend time with their peers."
The figures, from the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability, show the number of adults with learning disabilities attending colleges part-time decreased in 12 of Scotland's 32 local authorities, with a particularly stark drop recorded in Aberdeenshire, and North and South Ayrshire.
The situation is unlikely to improve soon: in its outcome agreement with the Scottish Funding Council, the Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Region states that it will aspire to deliver about 366 full-time equivalent places for students with learning disabilities in 2013-14, down from 549 in 2010-11. Aberdeen College principal Rob Wallen insisted the college offers "a range of programmes ... for people with additional support needs".
Ayrshire, like many other college regions, does not specify a target for those with learning difficulties in its outcome agreement, but pledges to "deliver an inclusive curriculum" and improve opportunities for "protected groups".
A spokeswoman for the new Ayrshire College said it had been working hard to ensure that as many as possible of its students with learning disabilities moved into jobs or other training, which has reduced the number attending college.
Penny Gower, president of the EIS-FELA union, said students with disabilities are being hit hard. "This is because the climate is one of major cuts which have bitten deep, alongside wholesale reorganisation through merger," she said. "Added to this, the government's programme is to narrow the scope of the FE service to a particular age group (16-24) towards courses which gain nationally recognised qualifications and towards employability."
Ms Gower said that "get a job, keep a job" is the new "crass mantra" of the government's approach to FE. "Anyone who does not immediately fit this scenario is likely to come out worse in the new faceless super-colleges," she added.
A spokesman said the Scottish government is committed to "ensuring students with a learning disability receive an improved educational experience, which is tailored to their needs and ambitions".
"We have funded the employment of dedicated support officers and development of a new good practice guide using an additional #163;250,000, which will assist 200 students to progress from learning to employment over the next 12 months," he added.