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TX: 26.03.07 - Further Education for People With Learning Difficulties

PRESENTERS: JOHN WAITE AND PETER WHITE
THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.


WAITE
Until the 1970 Education Act people with learning difficulties or "disability of mind", as they called it then, were often regarded as ineducable. A horrifying error that thankfully over the years has been gradually corrected and big strides have been made when it comes to including people with learning difficulties in mainstream services, including education. But some people are now warning that the government's focus on skills for employment and measurable outcomes means that post-16 education for those with special needs is in decline and there's even a danger that we could be going back to those bad old days. Peter has compiled this report:

WHITE
Much of the concern about this is based on the figures of the Learning and Skills Council, that's the public body responsible for further education in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have its equivalent. In a recent survey the council said that the numbers of people with learning disabilities on further education courses had dropped by 7,000 to around 19,000 in the years between 2003 and 2005. But, they argued, that this fall is in proportion to a drop in numbers generally across the board and that courses had been withdrawn because of their poor quality, not because colleges wanted to move away from taking students with special needs.

Not everyone is reassured, David Condon is head of campaigns and policy for the charity Mencap and is with me. David, so what are you worried about still?

CONDON
Well firstly we very much welcome the minister's initiative in asking the Learning and Skills Council to carry out this survey. But the survey, in many respects, has confirmed our worst fears that large numbers of people with a learning disability are losing out on their courses. I think I have to say, in looking at this survey the Learning and Skills Council carried out, it's not very robust and our fears are there are a lot more youngsters missing out on these courses and as a result have got absolutely nothing to do. And I should add this is despite the fact the Learning and Skills Councils were asked to maintain the numbers of pupils with a learning disability on courses. So we've seen a 15% drop in the last 12 months and we regard that as unacceptable.

WHITE
Well also with us is Peter Lavender, who's the Deputy Director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education. Why are numbers falling anyway Peter Lavender?

LAVENDER
They're falling for several reasons and it's a bit complicated but they're falling because some of the provision has been cut, as David says, some of it, it is true, is of poor quality but not all. It is true that some youngsters and adults are getting into more sheltered employment and more supportive employment, which is a very good thing, but it's a very small minority ...

WHITE
But there's a general fall across the board for people whether they have learning disabilities or not?

LAVENDER
That's right, last year we estimate some 750,000 adult places went from the learning and skills database and that is even higher if you count the last two or three years, so that's often been described as leisure provision but it's actually the kind of provision that might help people with learning disabilities to get on and make progress. So it has a knock on effect.

WHITE
Well we'll also be hearing in a moment from Bill Rammell, who's minister for lifelong learning. But first, what kinds of courses are we actually talking about and what is their significance for the people who are on them? I've been along to Lewisham College in Southeast London to sit at the back of an enterprise course, mainly for post-19s run by tutor Jenny Wilson.

ACTUALITY
Does someone know what these are?

Carnations.

Well done, thank you. Red carnations.

WILSON
They run their own business with the support of myself and my colleague and a delivery service for regular customers - we have about 40 customers on a Thursday who get flowers. Students condition them, wrap them and then they have their own customers that they deliver to during the course of the day.

WHITE
And there are other projects that you do as well aren't there?

WILSON
We have card making on one of the other courses. We have car valeting.

WHITE
What do you see as the role of these courses because I mean some of these things are quite employment based, or they could lead to those kind of skills but not all these youngsters will go on and get jobs will they?

WILSON
No they won't, I think it would be unrealistic of us to think that there are jobs for everyone. It's about acquiring work skills, which prepare students for the possibility of working, perhaps in supported employment or volunteer work, we're looking for the transferability of these skills - it could be into independent living. I know many students who've been on these courses who aren't employed as such but have moved away from the family home and are living semi-independent lives.

WHITE
So how difficult is it in this area to use what in the jargon is regarded as outcomes?

WILSON
I think the outcomes are fairly clear for us, I mean the level of confidence that you see students develop, the level of their communication soars really after courses like this, providing authentic working conditions. And I think they are measurable, I think it's a shame if it goes down that route really because I think there are plenty of students out there having done these courses who are sort of living successful lives, it doesn't have to be because they've got a job, I don't think that validates the life of a human being and can't do in the future, there aren't the jobs around.

WHITE
Right, well Jenny thank you very much indeed, I'll let you get on with the class.

ACTUALITY
Anyone ready to do the carnations? Okay do you want to cut the elastic bands off?

I'm just coming to have a chat with some of the students. Paul and Vincent are working over here, what are you doing?

STUDENT
Cut the flowers.

STUDENT
We're taking the leaves off.

STUDENT
Putting water.

STUDENT
The lilies and we're going to put ...

STUDENT
In water.

WHITE
What do you like about this course?

STUDENT
It's nice.

STUDENT
It's like working.

STUDENT
Outside.

WHITE
Is it important for it to be like working for you?

STUDENT
Yes.

WHITE
Why - why is that so important?

STUDENT
So we can get a job after.

ACTUALITY
... just take a couple more out.

WHITE
Amy what are you doing?

AMY
I'm cutting this and taking off the leaves.

WHITE
Right. What do you like about this whole course?

AMY
I like working with my friends.

WHITE
Right, so have you got a lot of friends here?

AMY
Yeah.

WHITE
Do you think you're more confident since you've come here?

AMY
Yes. It's really good.

ACTUALITY
How many? Can we count these out?

One ...

WHITE
Mary-Lynne Jones is head of supported learning here at Lewisham College.

JONES
I think that they're meant to absolutely open up life choices for this cohort of learners. I also think that people can work, it may not be nine to five, five days a week but definitely I think paid work should be part of everybody's entitlement really. And I think a lot of the time, for a whole raft of reasons, people with learning disabilities in particular are not expected to work and I think that's a real shame.

WHITE
How concerned are you that there does seem to be a feeling that further education opportunities for people with learning disabilities have begun to fail a little on this whole issue of measurability of success?

JONES
I would suggest that the people come and look at what we're doing here because I think we can demonstrate that and we can show that the contribution that the students make to the life of this college is enormous. There is always a debate around what constitutes education and what constitutes care, that is a debate that is worth having and I would definitely not want to see budget shunting going on, however, I would like to see ministerial protocols around this and I think that is starting to happen.

WHITE
When you say budget shunting this is this argument about whether it is education or whether it's some branch of healthcare?

JONES
I think we need to separate out what is learning and what is care and what enables people to learn. Sometimes it maybe that it should be funded by healthcare but I think what's really, really important is that this cohort of learners are seen to be absolutely learning, just as anybody else learns. Let's look back to the '70s where in fact an education bill came in there, before that these people were deemed ineducable and were part of health.

WHITE
And you don't want to go back to that?

JONES
Absolutely not.

WHITE
That report from Lewisham College.

Bill Rammell, minister for lifelong learning, you were listening to that. Is Mary-Lynne Jones fear justified that academic and work based targets might set back education for people with learning disabilities, particularly for the less able?

RAMMELL
No I don't think that that is the case and let me be clear from the beginning - we're not cutting funding, if you look at the figures for the last year there were 60,000 more learners with learning difficulties and disabilities within the system and we were spending £200 million more than the previous year.

WHITE
So why are the number of courses going down then?

RAMMELL
Well hold on let me come on to that. I've not in any sense been complacent and I instructed the Learning and Skills Council, because I was concerned about reports, to conduct an audit. And I am reassured by the evidence of that audit. What the LSC said was that the perceived vision of a widespread crisis in provision for adults with learning difficulties and disabilities is misplaced, caused by considerable coverage of isolated incidents and there hasn't been a wholesale reduction. What the audit identified was that there are actually 2,960 places that had been either changed or reduced out of a total volume of 641,000. And in the vast, vast majority of cases it was because the quality of provision was simply not good enough. And you know I think it's really important that just because someone has a learning difficulty or a disability that they're not short changed and they don't get second best. And we do need to see that it's quality provision and it's leading to an outcome.

WHITE
So if the number of courses is falling by whatever figure we agree on what's being put in its place for those people who have lost their courses?

RAMMELL
Well I mean one, I do think that I need restate - there is not wholesale reduction in the learning numbers. I mean that was the accusation, I think the LSC audit has demonstrated that that is not the case. Where courses are changed then real efforts are made at a local level to provide alternatives but I do think we need better cross government working and that's why I'm working, for example, with my colleagues in the Department of Health and Department of Work and Pensions, for example, to ensure that there are real packages of support negotiated at a local level between the LSC and social care to encourage people into learning.

WHITE
Let me bring in Peter Lavender, you've got an overview of this across the board, so what's your take on what Bill Rammell is saying which is that while some courses may have gone that is for lack of quality and that they are being replaced by others?

LAVENDER
Well part of that is true and the government and the LSC have absolutely been clear that these learners are a priority, so that's never been questioned. What's happened is that provision has gone down, some of it is of poor quality but if the quality is poor you don't cut it, you improve it. That's the first point. The second point is the data we have is dreadful and you can hear that Bill is struggling in a sense with the figures as we are because the report that he cites says that 2,900 learners have lost their places out of 20,000, well that's much more than 10%. So the third point ...

RAMMELL
Sorry Peter it's not out of 20,000, there's 641,000 learners with learning difficulties and disabilities within the system.

LAVENDER
Sorry Bill, the figures are only - we're only talking about people with learning disabilities here and that's why the data needs improving. The data records in the LSC are so poor that it makes it look like 15 - actually 10-15% of learners with learning disabilities, that relatively small group, that only 16% of all people with disabilities in the LSC data have learning disabilities have lost their places. So don't cut it, improve it. The data's dreadful. And the third thing is when you're changing provision let's see if we can support learners to something different and the transitions haven't been good and that's why you've had bad publicity.

WHITE
Can I - sorry Bill - can I just bring in David Condon, head of campaigns and policy for the charity Mencap, who whatever those figures are what I'd like to know is what happens to those people who have been perhaps on the courses, the course has gone, where do they go now?

CONDON
The net result of all of this is the youngsters concerned don't go on the course they thought they were going to go on and frankly they end up spending their time at home doing absolutely nothing. What should be happening is where there are bad courses those courses should be dramatically improved and I think the tragedy of all this is that the opportunity is being taken in some colleges to get rid of provision unfairly. And I do think this is in the context of a changed policy direction which I understand and respect which is to focus resources on 16-18 year olds which is leading to cuts in adult education and people with a learning disability are the losers as a result of that change. And as I say are they're ending up at home with nothing to do but sadly no one knows the scale of it.

WHITE
Right, let me put that to you minister because people have said that part of the problem is that the government is very much focused on work and perhaps exam based outcomes, that there are indeed people with learning disabilities who are able to work but there are many who are not and that there isn't as much interest in developing, for example, somebody who goes to a pottery glass for the joy of using the clay rather than actually becoming a potter.

RAMMELL
Well we're right to focus on helping everybody to do their best and we're right to focus on skills and jobs. And actually what I heard in the interview from the college was individuals and support staff who actually wanted to help people into work. But we really do need to nail down this issue of the figures because what the LSC survey was focused on was adults with learning difficulties and/or disabilities and that identified firstly that in two regions of the country there were no reported reductions and that overall there were 2,960 out of a total volume of 641,000. Now I'm not saying that everything is perfect, I am saying that there is not a crisis and we do need more joined up working, we do need more support packages at a local level, that's why I'm working very actively with my colleagues in DWP and the Department of Health. But I think this suggestion that there is a crisis, when you look at the individual circumstances it is about poor quality and then what should happen is with the provider and the Learning and Skills Council there should be alternative provision put in place.

WHITE
Is it happening because these youngsters have only got one chance haven't they really, these are the post-19s, if they lose their courses at 21 or 22 they're not going to get another chance are they minister?

RAMMELL
No I agree with you and that's why where there are problems then that should be put right. Where it's poor provision I don't think we should say second best is good enough just because you've got a learning difficulty or a disability, we should intervene and stop poor provision but certainly there should be alternatives in place.

WHITE
David Condon, you've got Bill Rammell at the end of a line here, you probably talk to him from time to time, what do you want to see?

CONDON
I'd like to see some really first class accurate information about what's going on because the figures we have from local people are much higher than the figures in the LSC report ...

WHITE
So you think there are a lot of people missing from this?

CONDON
We think there are people missing, so the net result is we have no evidence that at the moment the people who have no longer got their courses are actually getting the provision. I think the minister is absolutely right on the direction of travel but the crucial thing is making sure that in the meantime these people have proper provision to meet their needs.

WHITE
So minister, how do you intend to ensure that these courses, which everyone seems to agree, you heard the Lewisham one and I can vouch for the atmosphere of these youngsters who were kind of going to college in the way that all their young peers go to college, how do you intend to see that these - the courses that increase the dignity and confidence of these young people continue and thrive?

RAMMELL
By continuing to make it a centrally driven priority. As a condition of further education funding FE providers have to endeavour to provide at least the same number of places as in the preceding year. And we've made abundantly clear within the LSC's annual statement of priorities and the DFES grant letter that this provision remains a priority. And look if I wanted to be complacent I wouldn't have instructed the LSC to conduct an audit. And I think part of what I'm hearing today is that people don't like or accept the outcome of that audit that shows there is no widespread crisis.

WHITE
Minister, Bill Rammell; Peter Lavender in Leicester; David Condon - thank you all very much indeed.

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