This article can be found in the magazine on pages 34-35, under the title: Students caught in the crossfire
Adults with learning difficulties are losing out as colleges drop courses that fall below GCSE standard. But who is at fault? Some are blaming the colleges but they say they are only responding to changes in government priorities. Amy Taylor reports
“Education is still our number one priority,” stated Labour’s 2005 general election manifesto. But not, it seems, for adults with learning difficulties.
In fact, the government has changed its education priorities, putting an emphasis on courses leading to level 2 qualifications – equivalent to GCSE . This has been reflected by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) repositioning its funding towards colleges and compounded by the government prioritising education for 16-to-18-year-olds in 2006-7, which has led to cuts in adult education budgets.
In June, education secretary Alan Johnson said these changes in policy should not lead to the slashing of funding for the
64,000 people with learning difficulties and that educational provision for this group should “remain a priority”.
Inevitably, though, colleges are dropping some courses for adults with learning difficulties which do not result in level 2 qualifications. Colleges blame the government, arguing that ministers’ reprioritisation of funding gives them no choice, but others see the colleges as responsible. For adults with learning difficulties the result is empty hours where their courses would have taken place.
John Brennan, chief executive at the Association of Colleges, says if ministers want courses for adults with learning difficulties to continue they will have to give colleges – through the LSC – more money.
“The government needs to clarify which groups it needs to give priority to and what kind of programmes it thinks are appropriate and it is willing to support,” he says.
He is not alone in placing responsibility with the government. Carol Herrity, campaigns manager at learning difficulties
charity Mencap, says ministers have stated that they want to improve independence and inclusion for people with learning difficulties and they are “shooting themselves in the foot” by allowing the cuts.
Others blame the colleges. Gordon Quince, director of Interactive Development, a company whose part-time courses for 200 adults with learning difficulties at Newcastle College have been cut this academic year, says some colleges are guilty of
knee-jerk reactions with little consultation.
However, Jackie Fisher, principal and chief executive of Newcastle College, says the government’s priorities spelled the end
for the courses. The LSC says the key issue is whether courses are helping students to learn. It says this was not the case with some courses that were cut, as some students repeated the same course year after year, and that, in effect, a significant part of what was being provided was day care.
Julia Dowd, the LSC’s national director of young people’s learning, says courses for adults with learning difficulties are a priority and that letters were sent to colleges reiterating this point in June 2005. She says: “The LSC cannot continue to,
and should not, fund programmes which are not learning-focused and are essentially personal and social care, delivered in a
further education environment. Colleges, however, should not act unilaterally to end this type of publicly funded provision.
The LSC believes that these programmes should be co-funded between social services, primary care trusts and the LSC; with
each agency funding the appropriate element of a holistic programme.”
But persuading cash-strapped social care and health services to take on extra costs is difficult and, in some areas, courses are ending with no day care taking their place. Herrity says there should have been negotiations before courses were cut.
“They [colleges and the LSC] are saying that it’s day care and, in the meantime, the person concerned drops through the hole
in the middle,” she says.
Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the University and College Union for academics and lecturers,
rejects the day care argument and says that people with learning difficulties take longer to learn and it is difficult to measure their progress by qualifications.
He says: “If you talk to those who teach people with learning difficulties they say their confidence has gone up and they can
get a job. The fact that there isn’t a formal qualification doesn’t matter.” Some feel there may be a point at which
education courses should be replaced by day care, but this is a grey area and needs government clarification.
Brennan says: “There are a lot of unanswered questions about all of this, such as what would constitute reasonable progress
and the point at which a judgement would be made from an educational viewpoint that further programmes are probably not
going to be a priority because you have achieved the limit of what’s feasible.”
In July the LSC sent out a questionnaire to its regional offices about local provision for adults with learning difficulties. Dowd says its purpose is to understand the local context for decisions to cut courses and results will be shared in late autumn.
But for those facing long, empty days now, any findings of wrongdoing will come too late.
‘I am angry the course is closing’
Dave Claydon, 26, is one of 105 adults with learning difficulties affected by the closure of the Pathways Course at Salisbury
College in Wiltshire this academic year. Several students are due to attend an alternative course at the college but this does not include Claydon.
He has been on the Pathways course for five years on a part-time basis. The course consists of eight levels and he has moved up to the highest one. “I am very cross and angry that the course is ending. I am going to be bored sitting around doing nothing,” he says.
The course consisted of several core modules, including literacy and numeracy, and had other optional subject areas. Claydon had chosen to take land-based studies and this involved him going to a local farm one day a week to help out.
His father, Mike, says his son enjoyed the work. It taught him basic skills and encouraged him to become more responsible.
He says: “I think the government has noble ideas to get everybody on to level two but what I don’t think they realise is that some people with a learning difficulty are not capable of getting to that level but they are capable of working and they want to contribute to society.”
Salisbury College was forced to close the course because it was no longer receiving funding as a result of the change in
government priorities, according to a spokesperson. she says the college is in talks with local agencies to find a solution.
She adds that 59 out of the 105 people who were on the Pathways course had been on it for more than five years.
Melanie Hunt, the Learning and Skills Council’s national director of learning, believes that for some students this is tantamount to social and day care which was not the college’s primary responsibility.
● How cuts to college courses are affecting students with learning difficulties: Dave's story
● Learning Difficulties focus