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New NIACE survey finds disabled learners at risk

Following concerns earlier this year from learning providers , NIACE conducted a survey to establish a clearer picture of changes in provision for learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities and  entitlements to learn and planned changes in eligibility for automatic fee remission. Findings from the survey were published on the NIACE website last Friday (8th July 2011). Although only a small scale survey, it is indicative of several emerging issues and highlights major concerns that providers have for the future of provision for learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities.

Key findings include:

  • providers are confused by the many different rules and many believe that Foundation Learning courses must end in a national qualification. This has resulted in students following courses that are not appropriate to their needs. Courses which help them with essential life skills and pathways to access social inclusion and/or employment could be more appropriate;
  • there are significant concerns about the impact of changes to eligibility for automatic fee remission on providers' curriculum offer, and the range of learners who may be able to access provision as a result of these changes;
  • providers believe that the range of learning will decrease and the primary focus will be on Level 2 qualifications; and that other courses will be offered on a full-cost recovery basis meaning many learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities will be unable to pay fees and will therefore not be able to access provision; and
  • respondents are especially concerned about learners working at Level 1 and below, and those with severe, complex, profound or multiple learning difficulties and/or disabilities. 
  • some respondents were worried that the changes would result in social exclusion for already marginalised groups and that learners would spend their days ‘doing nothing’ and would become increasingly isolated. Respondents were concerned that learners with mental health difficulties would experience a deterioration in their mental health, and would require more health intervention.

 Peter Lavender, Deputy Chief Executive of NIACE, said:

"Learning providers, senior management teams and teachers need clear information and need to open up clear communication channels. This is essential so that learners are not offered inappropriate courses and qualifications solely because of funding methods. The Skills Funding Agency or YPLA must produce a clear and timely policy statement. This needs to include information on the possibilities of using methods to recognise and record progress and achievement in Foundation Learning without the necessity of using qualifications unless they are really wanted. It should state that non-QCF qualifications can be used within Foundation Learning provision.

The forthcoming changes to automatic fee eligibility remission need to be reviewed. NIACE recommends BIS carry out a review and an Equality Impact Assessment, in consultation with learning providers and other organisations, to ascertain how these changes may impact upon adults with disabilities. Learning transforms lives, particularly the lives of some of the most marginalised people in our communities. As the Association of Colleges have pointed out, some 33,000 students with disabilities on inactive benefits might be affected by these rule changes. The impact of this, unless urgent action is taken, could mean many thousands of people remain isolated and not part of society."

NIACE recommends an annual review of provision for adults with disabilities, so that the position can be monitored each year.