Special needs students deserve a better future too

25th January 2008 at 00:00

At the recent National Institute of Adult Continuing Education's conference - with the theme "Preparing for the future (2008-15): what to fight for and what to resist" - Skills Secretary John Denham came to the conclusion that there had been no "golden age" for adult education.

I would wish to state for those with special educational needs or learning difficulties andor disabilities that there was a clear zenith in provision after significant growth in the early Eighties - from around 1990 to 1996.

On leaving incorporated further education, I was very proud to have managed, organised and developed a programme of post-19 education that offered 600 student places per week on 70 courses serviced by 34 staff.

Now, at the same college campus, the offer appears to be 15 courses per week. That seems to me to be a reduction over 10 years of some 75 per cent. By extrapolation, I consider that nationally there are some 35,000 fewer places for SENLDD post-19 learners now.

Under the stewardship of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), there has been an extremely noticeable decline in provision and my colleagues in FE tell me that demand has never been higher.

Furthermore, there are some startling anomalies that at times defy belief. Many independent specialist colleges get an average of pound;53,000 per year per learner (non-residential).

Why cannot the LSC provide additional funding for local incorporated colleges to employ additional welfare and support staff to enable learners to attend local provision at a fraction of the specialist college fee?

Also, if a learner attends a specialist college, there is normally no fee for them to pay. Yet if the same learner attended a local college there would be a fee - charged to an individual who is probably on benefit and therefore of limited disposable income.

Demographic trends indicate that there will be substantially more learners with profound, multiple and complex learning difficulties coming through the educational system over the next decade. FE needs to be prepared for this change in demand and services to support these deserving learners.

This often disenfranchised and marginalised group of learners will not go away. These students will challenge services, support systems and provision.

The LSC is attempting to create new opportunities for these students. However, the system and mechanisms for funding are at the same time insensitive and too robust to allow for the high levels of welfare and personal care support and do not recognise the need to employ well- trained, qualified and experienced staff.

Finally, transition routes into post-19 provision are becoming significantly limited. The view that adult social services departments could part-fund post-19 or adult education provision is a non-starter.

I am not aware of any social services department in the country that is financially in the "black". Indeed, most departments are reducing their provision with day centres closing, outreach work being reduced, respite care becoming limited and the needy back on the streets.

There are major challenges facing adult education in all of its many forms. However, for those with special educational needs or disabilities, at present there are some very limited or stark choices at the age of 19.

I urge Mr Denham to consider ways of expanding provision, career paths and opportunities for this deserving group of learners.

Len Parkyn, Vines Cross, Near Horam, East Sussex.

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