From education to employment

Disability, mental health and learning difficulties: NIACE has serious concerns

Peter Lavender is deputy chief executive of NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning

Many education and training providers seem confused about what they should be doing for adult learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, despite these learners being considered a priority in the Skills Strategy 2010.

Further and adult education provision for adults with learning difficulties has decreased in recent years, in spite of Government assurances in the past. A NIACE survey – which is published today, Monday 11th July – shows that education and training providers are unclear about whether or not Foundation Learning provision for learners with disabilities has to include national qualifications or not in order to qualify for funding. This, providers themselves have admitted, has led to the situation where:

‘Learners have been pushed into accredited courses which are not always appropriate. They then fail to achieve and are discouraged from returning to education.’

Providers’ views about this provision are crucial. It determines how learners are regarded, whether or not they pay fees, and if they do how much those fees will be. Views also determine the kind of curriculum offer learners receive, or even whether the provision is offered in the first place. It is clear that we are in a muddle and some helpful clarification is called for.

The decline we have seen in provision for adults with learning difficulties over the past few years has been due to providers struggling to find the money to subsidise their courses. And now there are major changes to the fee arrangements. Everyone in receipt of ‘inactive benefits’ – the vast majority of whom are on incapacity benefits – will no longer be entitled to reduced fees. This will inevitably reduce the confidence with which potential learners need to approach colleges and other providers – and that in turn will have an effect on whether the provision is sustainable.

‘We will end up having just those learners who can afford to pay. This will probably mean that students in supported living accommodation may be able to afford the fees and will get support to manage their money but that students living in group residential homes or with elderly parents won’t be able to afford the fees. This will be complete discrimination.’

What is needed is for this provision to exist so that disabled people have the chance to become more independent; have the self advocacy skills they need to manage their environments well; and have a chance of earning their own living. Without such provision, and without these kinds of opportunities, what is the point of making learners with disabilities a priority?

The end of June was the closing date for consultation on the Green Paper on special educational needs and disability. NIACE’s response argues that we need to see the position holistically. Instead, the split of education responsibilities between two government departments (BIS and DfE) and between two national agencies (YPLA and the Skills Funding Agency) has, inadvertently, created confusion and inaction.

In our response to the Green Paper NIACE is urging that more attention be given to the educational requirements of those who develop disabilities in later life – such as mental ill health. Another major concern is the lack of consideration given to those over 16 who have no existing assessment of their learning requirements and for anyone over 25 it seems to be completely off the radar.

In addition, forgotten by the new national agencies has been the commitment and planning evident in the former national ‘Mental Health Strategy’ (LSC 2009). Even the much heralded policy ‘Learning for Living and Work’, when reviewed in April this year, has been limited to ‘0-25’. The education system does include adults with disabilities over the age of 25 in its provision. Shame this isn’t recognised.

To plan learning requirements solely at the beginning of life (as the Green Paper suggests) only half works for learners. It’s a ‘camel driver’s’ view of public policy – fill them up with water at the start of the long desert march through life and hope they don’t die before the water runs out. This is no way to run a public education system for anyone, least of all for some of the most vulnerable adults in society.

We need a better public commitment to adults with disabilities, a reminder that these learners are important to the future of this country and to communities. Educational provision can make a big difference, provided the curriculum is rigorous and appropriate, the provision exists and learners don’t ‘have to jump through hoops’. It may be accidental that we have got into this muddle, perhaps caused by changes in fees and agency responsibilities, but mishaps of planning are no excuse for public policy inertia.

Peter Lavender is deputy chief executive of NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning

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