Continuing education and equal opportunities for adults with learning difficulties

Jeannie Sutcliffe and Yola Jacobsen

This research finds that examples of continuing education for particular groups of adults with learning difficulties, such as older people or people from minority ethnic groups, are patchy and likely to be vulnerable to cuts.

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This project took place in 1997/98 at a time of substantive policy development in continuing education. Major reports from the Further Education Funding Council(FEFC) such as Inclusive Learning (1996) and Mapping Provision (1997) showed that provision for students with learning difficulties needed a major review and had gaps. These reports were produced by the Tomlinson Committee, which had spent three years exploring these issues on behalf of the FEFC. During the course of the project, further reports on general adult learning such as Learning Works (1997, FEFC) and the consultative Green Paper The Learning Age (1998, DfEE) set out visions of how continuing education could encourage wider participation in learning by under-represented groups.

Previous NIACE research supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ('Further education for adults with learning difficulties', May 96, Findings SC85) found that certain groups of adults with learning difficulties, such as those with profound learning difficulties and older adults, were starting to miss out on education. This study built on this work by setting out to document existing examples of colleges and Local Education Authorities who had specifically addressed the needs of marginalised individuals or groups of people with learning difficulties.

The scarcity of provision

There were isolated examples of provision for adults with learning difficulties who:

  • were older
  • had profound/multiple learning difficulties
  • were from black or other minority ethnic groups
  • were women
  • presented what was described as 'challenging behaviour'
  • had sensory disabilities
  • had a dual label of learning difficulties and mental health difficulties
  • had a history of institutionalisation

However, these examples were relatively rare. Indeed, some of the courses were so fragile that their existence from term to term was in doubt. Provision was also dispersed and it was necessary to make a large number of visits to different places to find examples of provision for all of the above individuals or groups of learners. Places which had developed provision tended to have specialised in one or two areas of work rather than offering opportunities for all of the learners listed above. However, one or two colleges with a fully inclusive approach were dealing with individuals who had a wide range of learning difficulties and disabilities.

Students with learning difficulties from marginalised groups explained clearly why they liked learning:

I can say what I think.
I think it is good for me, I have had a good year.
The tutor can listen and help.
You can learn about different people. It's alright.
We looked at maps of different countries like Jamaica. I've been to Jamaica with my Mum for my birthday treat. I've got a cousin there.
I make friends here and meet people. ... The teachers are good, they are nice and they talk to me. I have to speak to the teacher about my courses and enrol here.
I like doing courses that help me to learn about the things I like to do.

There were some positive examples of courses being tailored to suit learners, with staff working creatively to develop an appropriate curriculum:

  • An Asian Studies course was set up at one college for adults with learning difficulties. The college has an Asian principal.
  • An arts course for black adults with learning difficulties was established. Cultural identity and self-image were an important part of the course.
  • One college has well-developed provision for adults with profound and multiple learning difficulties. Art, making musical instruments and coppicing are a few of the learning activities, which are all taught by subject specialists.

Ownership and a sense of belonging were crucial for students from marginalised groups. Helping black students to "feel culture" through art and drama was an important aspect of the black arts group which was visited. Meanwhile, one group for deaf adults with learning difficulties "took off" after appointing a deaf tutor. The group met at a centre used by deaf people, and members were realising that they belonged to and were a part of the deaf community. This has widened their experience.

Working across agencies was essential

Working across agencies has always been important in education for adults with learning difficulties. It was an essential part of developing new provision for marginalised groups. Partners from different organisations identified needs in common and then devised a joint strategy for action:

One college set up provision for adults with profound/multiple learning difficulties in close collaboration with social services. Social services staff go into college as support workers and college staff also deliver education at day centres.

A development worker setting up a group for black adults with learning difficulties had to liaise with a range of community groups to find potential learners, who often did not use traditional services. Social services recently set up a local drop-in facility aimed at this group, and work closely with the adult education worker.

One private organisation offered provision for people with the dual label of learning difficulties and mental health difficulties on site at a college. Partnership with the college and other agencies was imperative.

Difficulties in accessing courses

The biggest barrier to access was the lack of provision nationally, coupled with a lack of staff awareness in relation to the learning needs of the marginalised groups and individuals which the project looked at. Few access routes into education were available; for instance, there were very few classes for black students with learning difficulties. The absence of appropriate opportunities gave a clear and negative message. One tutor summed it up by saying: "People feel provision is not for them.

General access issues included a lack of physical access for students with mobility difficulties, transport problems and information presented in inaccessible forms for some groups.

Much of the support was excellent. There were several examples of support workers from other agencies (such as health trusts, social services or voluntary organisations) accompanying students to classes. However, in some cases the staff member was being changed every week, thus disrupting the continuity of support to students.

Funding came from a number of sources, including the FEFC and LEAs, as well as support from social services departments, health trusts and voluntary organisations. Some funding was short-term and vulnerable to cuts. One local authority made large cuts to its well-established outreach work at about the time of the project visits, which affected community-based provision for learners from marginalised groups. Funding and accreditation were seen as closely linked for provision funded by the Further Education Funding Council, as is prescribed in the relevant legislation. The emphasis on accreditation was not always seen as appropriate for marginalised groups of learners. As one person said forcefully: "It's accreditate, not educate!" The demands of accreditation sometimes skewed the learning process towards paper work and inflexible pre-set goals, which are not always relevant for learners.

Staff development and training

The project explored what staff development and training was offered. Most places had something on offer, but the overall national picture was an under-developed hotchpotch. People were doing bits and pieces here and there, but the lack of a coherent and structured national strategy was evident. The current FEFC "Quality Initiative" is designed to remedy this and to provide an over-arching national training and accreditation system in relation to inclusive learning for staff in colleges of further education in England. In the longer term this new initiative may apply to staff working in LEAs. Developments in Wales will be an issue, as these are not covered by the initiative.

Three network meetings for the project aimed to give colleagues a chance to stand back from their work and to exchange information and ideas for mutual support. One participant wrote on their evaluation form: "Above all I feel that giving people a space and some quality time to discuss issues affecting them with others encountering the same difficulties was the most valuable experience - the realisation that you are not alone and the opportunity to restore your sanity!" As one tutor commented at a project network meeting: "This is the very start of things that should be happening in this area ... we're all working slightly isolated." Her feelings were reflected by a number of other people.

Some staff faced opposition from colleagues. In a few cases, people doing innovative work were always having to justify their work to sceptical colleagues, who seemed unconvinced that these areas of work merited dedicated resources and staffing. One tutor working with black adults with learning difficulties said: We have to fight for the fact that it is important and necessary.

Multiple discrimination

The odds of finding appropriate provision were harder if people had more than one 'label' to contend with. For example, there was not much provision for Asian women with learning difficulties. Some people even faced threefold discrimination in seeking appropriate provision, such as the man with learning difficulties who was also deaf and black. People with the dual label of both learning difficulties and mental health difficulties also tended to miss out.

About the study

The project ran for 12 months during 1997/98. A preliminary letter was sent to all colleges and Local Education Authorities in England and Wales. Eighteen site visits were made to gather information for the project. Three network meetings for staff were held across the country, to share information and ideas. CHANGE, a national organisation of disabled people, provided consultants with learning difficulties to advise on the work.