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Vulnerable learners hit hardest by cuts

Greig Jenkinson, a 20-year-old student at Kilmarnock College, demonstrates the human cost of the tidal wave of cuts sweeping further education. He has Down's syndrome and, for him, access to classes teaching independent living skills is not only a crucial bridge to a future less dependent on his parents, but an opportunity to make friends.

We reveal today that more than a third of part-time places for students with learning disabilities have already been cut (page 5). A survey by the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disabilities, to which 17 out of more than 40 colleges responded, showed that 34 per cent of part-time supported learning places had been slashed this year. The figure suggests that this most vulnerable group of learners has been hit disproportionately hard in last year's 10 per cent funding reduction. And with further cuts of 13.5 per cent over the next three years putting college managements under unprecedented pressure, it is hard to imagine that students with learning disabilities will not become the victims of yet more reductions in provision tailor-made for them.

These are the very students who need advocates and they are fortunate to have the SCLD speaking out for them. They need the wider world to know that colleges are not just a place to acquire an HNC or an HND - a passport to a job, important though that is. Colleges, for people with learning disabilities, offer companionship as well as the acquisition of the kind of skills most people take for granted. Perhaps the most telling statistic in the SCLD's report, If I don't get a place next year, I don't know what I'll do, is that 50 of the 52 students questioned said they "enjoyed" college. We cannot put too high a price on "enjoyment".

Within schools, the people who act on behalf of the most vulnerable pupils are often educational psychologists, the subject of this week's News Focus (page 12). They are the ones who "oil the wheels of the machine", yet often they are not considered as "frontline" workers by politicians, local and national. Yet psychological services have made great strides in not only the assessment of learning needs but in training others to assess and overcome conditions such as dyslexia, ADHD and autism. Their insight into the "how" of learning is helping councils to become more proficient at delivering literacy programmes; and they could turn out to be the link in the chain that makes teachers better at delivering the teaching methodologies demanded under Curriculum for Excellence.

If, as some predict, psychological services are destined to become part of the shared services agenda - operating across local authority boundaries - then we must take care that the interests of administrative efficiency do not trump those of our most vulnerable children.

Elizabeth Buie, Deputy editor, elizabeth.buie@tess.co.uk.

Gillian Macdonald is away.

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