Further Education Provision for Young People with Disabilities

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 am on 7th April 2008.

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Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly expresses concern at the lack of further education courses specifically targeted at young people with learning and physical disabilities; recognises the lack of provision for disabled young people over the age of 19; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to provide sufficient further educational opportunities to ensure that these young people achieve their full potential. –— [Mrs O’Neill.]

Which amendment was: Leave out all after “expresses” and insert

“its continued commitment to securing training and employment opportunities where appropriate for young people with disabilities; and awaits the outcome of the review of such provision undertaken by the Minister for Employment and Learning.” — [Mr B McCrea.]   [Mr McClarty]

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

I thank the proposer of the motion. I also know that a review is in place. I hope that, given what Mr Basil McCrea said earlier, there will not be any division in the House at the end of the debate because this issue is too important for those with disabilities for that to happen. I hope that people will reflect and be able to accept the motion and not divide the House.

When the motion is dissected, there is nothing in it that anyone could oppose. It is about opportunity and young people being afforded the opportunity to fulfil their potential. It is up to the House to ensure that the right opportunities are in place for young people with disabilities in order that their potential is reached.

Disability should not be a hindrance to education, and I admire anyone who wants to further their education in order to maximise their potential. If Northern Ireland is to become an area of economic prosperity, we must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute.

About 100 young people with learning difficulties or a disability leave special schools in Northern Ireland each year. That is a significant number with significant potential. Unfortunately, there is a perception — indeed, perhaps more than a perception — that there is little opportunity for that group and no accessible route to further education.

Article 13(1) of the Further Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 requires governing bodies of further education institutions to have regard to the needs of students who are over compulsory school age and who have a disability. Furthermore, the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 requires colleges to make their premises and curriculum accessible to those with disabilities. An additional support fund ensures that financial resources are in place for colleges and students. Those are positive moves, but are they enough? At times I fear that the approach of Government is to throw money at areas such as this without any real consideration of how that money is best spent.

Colleges have raised various issues as problems: have colleges got the capacity to provide for students with learning difficulties and disabilities; are college staff appropriately trained to provide the level of service that students need; are the progressive routes that are required and suitable accreditations in place? Those issues still have to be addressed adequately by the Department for Employment and Learning. The issue is not about just money: it is about targeting resources; providing the necessary environment; giving the right opportunities, and targeting spending in those areas where it is most needed. The needs of students must always be at the forefront of the decision-making process and the strategy adopted.

I understand that the Department for Employment and Learning is reviewing the nature and extent of the provision of further education opportunities for those with special needs. The Department must act in light of the fact that 10% of people aged 18 to 30 have a disability, yet no more than 5% of students in further education have a disability. That disparity must be redressed, but it can be redressed only when the obstacles that prevent young people who have disabilities from entering further education are removed.

I am glad that the Minister has been present in the House throughout the entire debate, and I urge him to take the issues that I have raised into consideration as part of the review. We want to provide the opportunities that young people with disabilities are crying out for. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that the amendment takes nothing away from the wording of the original motion. I reiterate the hope from this side of the House that there will be no Division on the matter, because it is too important.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the second opportunity in recent months to debate this matter. It is worth debating for two reasons. First, there are the reasons that Members have outlined — namely that the group of young people that we are discussing is under stress and is particularly vulnerable. If the Assembly is to measure up to expectations, it must demonstrate the benefits of devolution to those individuals and their families in the way in which it addresses this matter.

However, this matter has returned to the House because of a structural flaw. It is not necessarily a comment on the Minister for Employment and Learning, but in the six months since the matter was first aired in the House, the Department has made no substantive report to the Committee on the progress of the review. Departments must provide stocktaking reports to their Committees on the progress that they make in implementing the will of the Assembly, as expressed in its resolutions. I hope that, in that respect, we can learn something from this matter.

Secondly, we must know precisely what stage the review is at; what issues it is addressing; and what the time frame is for its completion. I invite the Minister to confirm whether the following matters will be addressed during the review. In opening the debate, Mrs O’Neill referred to transition provision. Probably no need is more acute than that for transition provision, given that the young person is moving from a situation in which he or she has been surrounded for many years by the architecture of schooling, social services and health provision to a new situation with a different architecture. We need to hear more about whether that transition can be better managed so that the young person has all the support and provision that he or she needs in order to move successfully from childhood to adulthood.

Will the Minister comment on the issue that was referred to by his colleague Mr Basil McCrea, namely day care, or daily care and support? As Mr McCrea said, not only are young people in day care with a wide range of other age groups, but there will be greater demand on day-care services as our population ages. Consequently, some families are beginning to discover that their young people are receiving fewer hours of day care than they might have received previously. Given that we have an increasing older population, we must know whether there will be increased day-care provision to ensure that those young people receive the daily care and support that they require throughout their lives.

Thirdly, I want to talk about supported learning, which has also been mentioned. I acknowledge that the Minister was in correspondence recently on how Invest NI may or may not, for example, support Ulster Supported Employment Ltd (USEL). The project, based in the upper Shankill, has been highly successful and requires a great deal of support. The SDLP needs to know how such initiatives will obtain additional resources, from bodies that include Invest NI, to ensure their continued provision of dedicated training for people, whether young or old, with particular needs.

The fourth matter that I want to flag up is the Minister’s ongoing review of the Training for Success programme. The Minister said that any aspect of Training for Success that is not working must be fixed. That applies to the part of the programme that caters for students with particular needs, whether they are part time, over 25 years old or young people.

I invite the Minister to respond to those four points, because they will all influence how the SDLP votes on the motion and thereby whether the House supports it.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

I thank Mrs O’Neill for proposing the motion.

There is a legislative framework for the protection of young people who wish to exercise their right to be educated. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 aims to protect disabled people from all forms of discrimination and to integrate them in the life of the community. However, as the Act requires major changes to employment practices and the provision of services, including education, it is being phased in over several years. The Act ensures that the needs of disabled people who wish to study are recognised and that comprehensive information on disability issues is provided to students and their parents or guardians.

In addition, the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 developed the right of children with special educational needs to attend mainstream schools. It made discrimination on the grounds of disability unlawful in schools, further and higher education institutions and qualifications bodies.

Official statistics show that approximately 100 young people with disabilities and/or learning difficulties leave special schools in Northern Ireland every year. Of those, about 20% are classed as having complex and multiple disabilities and those young people have no option other than day-care provision. Disabled people are twice as likely to have no qualifications as their non-disabled peers.

The solution is not to set up courses specifically for disabled people for which existing legislation mandates, because that would remove them from mainstream society. The solution is to improve access to existing courses. Disability Action’s stance is that, where possible, disabled people should be part of mainstream education but with the necessary support to ensure their full participation.

In general, the voluntary and community sector is extremely concerned at the economic focus of the FE Means Business strategy. Non-NVQ provisions receive only 5% of the budget for further education, and colleges tend to prioritise level-2 and level-3 courses, which attract weighted funding. Although it is important for colleges to meet employers’ needs to upskill the workforce, a balance must be struck to ensure that that is not done to the detriment of disadvantaged communities that need education to give them a second chance.

Often, level-1 provision is not considered a priority. However, the vast majority of disabled people who have learning disabilities access provision at level 1 or below. Disability Action is concerned about the Department’s systematic reduction of the amount of provision that is available at level 1 and below. The option to participate in further education will be reduced dramatically for that group of people, thus marginalising them further in society.

The Programme for Government advocates a shared and better future for all. Therefore, economic development cannot be the Assembly’s only concern. Building a fair and inclusive society must be the basis for a future in which people are not prevented from reaching their full potential simply because of their disability.

I support the amendment and look forward to the Department’s review and to a holistic approach being taken towards employment, training and education opportunities for all.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I agree with my colleague Jimmy Spratt’s remarks on the matter. I hope that all Members agree that the matter is of such serious concern that the House must not divide on the issue. There is no need for it to divide. I concur with the remarks of Alex Attwood, who has just left the Chamber, on the transition from school to further education and, particularly, on USEL. When the organisation attended the Committee for Employment and Learning, members were impressed by the work that it does for disabled people.

All local politicians have a responsibility to support the personal development of the most vulnerable people in society, regardless of their background, physical or mental needs, age or gender. A society that cannot accept the basic principle to support the people who are in greatest need does not deserve to be described as progressive.

Some Members have quoted statistics and figures; no doubt others who speak after me will do the same. I do not want to discuss statistics, specifics and essentials. It would not be possible for me to cover the whole story in the time that I have been allocated. However, I want to address the supporting principles that the Assembly must adopt — guidelines that should underpin all that it does if it is to improve the circumstances and well-being, not only of the group of people that we are discussing, but of everyone.

There is a great need for the Assembly to listen to people who have learning difficulties. To some extent, the Assembly has engaged, through pilot studies, with school pupils who have disabilities and has attempted to deal with their identified needs. However, that must be extended and expanded in order to take note of needs in further education areas. The Assembly must speak up for people who have needs, not just when an opportunity, such as this debate, arises, but through an ongoing and unremitting campaign that articulates the specific needs of those young people, who often have complex and multiple disabilities.

There is a need to provide support and to ensure that the necessary infrastructure that Alex Attwood talked about is available during the transition in order to help teachers, lecturers and students and to guarantee the best learning experience. Young disabled people need to feel safe. Their learning experience must be satisfying and rewarding and must provide them with increased confidence as part of their holistic development.

However, that cannot be a one-way process, nor should we expect it to be. We need to challenge the students to make choices about their lives and careers. We need to provide all the support that we can, but we also need students to make choices and decisions. We should help to stretch them to achieve their dreams and aspirations. We need to help them take their rightful places in society, ensure that they have the opportunity to contribute to the community in a positive manner, and fully value their contributions.

Moving from school — we have been talking mainly about special schools — to further education can be a traumatic experience for those with learning difficulties and disabilities. They need support at that challenging time, as they make the transition, but they also need encouragement and assistance to empower them to make their own choices about post-school provision and to allow them the opportunity to avoid care centres or intensive-support units. As many as possible should enjoy a fully empowered and comprehensive life, and the opportunity to make a full contribution to society.

This matter is important. A society that ignores people is not progressive. I hope that the House will not divide on this issue, and that those who seek support from us will receive it from a united Assembly.

Photo of Paul Butler Paul Butler Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate and broadly support what other Members, particularly the members of the Employment and Learning Committee, have said. After 12 years of primary and post-primary education, many young people who suffer disabilities and learning difficulties are denied the opportunity to enter further education — an opportunity given to so many others.

Research shows that in Northern Ireland, a lower percentage of young people with disabilities or learning difficulties than in Britain participate in further education programmes and courses. Statistics also show that approximately 100 of them leave special schools in the North every year. Of those, 20% are classified as having complex or multiple disabilities. Most of those kids have no choice but to go into day care. They have no opportunity to access further education courses. The debate needs to reflect that, and we must do something about it.

We should also acknowledge the good work that goes on in further education colleges. In Belfast Metropolitan College, many courses are provided for young people with disabilities and learning difficulties. Many young people have been enabled by that college to progress into employment or to acquire skills.

The motion is aimed at offering educational opportunities to young people with disabilities. Further education colleges are at the heart of lifelong learning in our communities; they enhance social cohesion and advance the skills and learning of individuals. For many years, further education colleges have provided a second opportunity for people to gain qualifications and, consequently, employment opportunities. The vast majority of full-time students in further education are drawn from the 16-to-18 age group. The sector has close historical links with our secondary schools. Further education colleges attract 27% of all school leavers, and almost one in three of all 16- and 17-year-old school leavers. Some 170,000 students attend such colleges every year.

Further education colleges are at the heart of our community; there are roughly 400 out centres, 47 campuses and, in 2007, our 16 colleges merged to form six super colleges.

In accordance with equality legislation, the Department for Employment and Learning has produced a disability action plan to address existing problems, and £1·5 million has been put into an additional support fund. I know, from my experience with Belfast Metropolitan College, that capital funding has been allocated to make buildings more accessible for people with disabilities.

One area that has not been covered in the debate are the universities, because the motion focuses on further education colleges. We must examine the concerns about the ability of people with disabilities to access university courses.

Anna Lo mentioned the FE Means Business strategy, which was raised in the Committee for Employment and Learning. The Committee accepts the main thrust of the strategy that there should be more focus on young people gaining qualifications. However, that undermines the community dimension at many colleges, where people with learning difficulties —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 4:45 am, 7th April 2008

The Member’s time is almost up.

Photo of Paul Butler Paul Butler Sinn Féin

The requirements of people with learning difficulties have not been addressed by the strategy, which I ask the Minister to examine. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

The DUP has stated that it is content with the thrust of the motion, but that it will not unnecessarily divide the House.

Education is the building block of life and should be available to all, irrespective of social background, age or disability. As the Member for Lagan Valley Paul Butler said, the problem of education provision for young people with disabilities exists in further education colleges and in universities. We must ensure that young people with disabilities can not only receive education and training, but get a good job afterwards.

As some Members stated, the Committee for Employment and Learning visited the factory of Ulster Supported Employment Ltd, which employs disabled people in their competitive commercial premises and receives support from the Department. USEL is a good example of disabled people getting jobs — in that factory and in the wider community. Therefore, when debating this subject, Members must bear in mind that there are wider issues involved, particularly in employment, which has been referred to by the proposer of the motion and other Members who spoke.

Specific mention is made in the motion about courses that are exclusively for disabled people, which are necessary for those who are severely disabled. In an intervention earlier, my colleague Sammy Wilson highlighted the lack of options in further education for those students who leave special schools. In that sense, I disagree with what Ms Lo said, although we should aim to help disabled people progress to, and gain qualifications from, mainstream accredited courses where that is suitable.

A disability should not be an obstacle to learning; unfortunately, however, many people who live with a disability do not feel that they have the same access to educational courses as able-bodied people. Unfort­unately, having a disability has proved to be a hurdle in life — fewer people with disabilities have good qualifications, and a higher percentage face poverty in later life.

Along with many Members, I have asked questions on widening access to courses and was informed that, in 2006, students at further education colleges included 488 blind or partially sighted people and 839 who were deaf or had hearing impediments. Those are people who can go into mainstream courses if certain provisions are made. Therefore, it is imperative that access to mainstream courses is made easier and that the requirements of disabled people are met. Some measures are simple, such as making physical access easier, much of which is already covered in legislation. My colleague Mr Spratt referred to a range of legislation that exists in that field.

There are practical difficulties for people with disabilities who, on entering further- or higher-education courses, should perhaps be individually assessed to evaluate their specific learning requirements. It is also important that the tools for learning are available, such as DAISY — digital accessible information system — technology or Braille, scribes or note takers, or the provision of individual assistants for some students.

One of the most important elements of that — and it has been mentioned by a number of Members — is ensuring that further education lecturers and support staff have the relevant training to deal with and teach people who have different needs than the average able-bodied learner. That may be particularly relevant to part-time staff.

It is also important that people with disabilities receive careers advice. I have mentioned USEL; some other companies have the right support mechanisms in place for those with disabilities. The further education colleges should be working to build up relationships with employers in that area.

Additional funding has been made available to help colleges with the extra costs associated with specialised courses that mainstream education cannot deliver. Money has been given to colleges to widen access, and legislation has been passed to ensure that college premises are more suitable for people with disabilities. The Department has taken a number of steps to widen participation in recent years, and that is to be commended.

A review of the provision of further education opportunities for those with special needs is under way. Mr Attwood said that the Committee has not been kept up to date on how that review is progressing. It would be useful if Members could hear how the review is progressing and be informed of when that review will be complete. I hope that support for the amendment will not mean that Members will allow the Department to take its eye off the ball, and that it will continue to work to deliver choices and opportunities for those with disabilities.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Members are aware of the problems that families and young people with learning and physical disabilities face. Although I welcome the debate, the responsibility for solving the problems of these young people is on more than one Department. It is important that the Department of Health and Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning are involved and that they plan for the needs of the young people. That planning should start when children are14 years old so that their individual needs can be met. Individual needs are crucial to the motion; only if an individual is considered on his or her own circumstances will his or her needs be resolved. A one-size response will not fit all.

The last action plan, which, I think, was published in 2006 or 2005, was weak, so we must get this one right. If all Departments play their part, and if a time frame and budget are imposed in which to address individual needs, we can do that.

I ask the Minister for Employment and Learning to table the issue at the ministerial subcommittee on children. I also support Mr Ross’s comments about the importance of including young people with disabilities in mainstream education.

I support the amendment. I hope that all Departments get involved and that we receive a report on this as soon as possible.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I support the motion and the amendment. This issue has come to my attention through my constituency office and the people with whom I have engaged, as is the case, I am sure, with other Members. There are many levels of disability, ranging from one scale to another, and the broad spectrum makes it difficult to cater to all. I understand that. However, that is no excuse for a system that appears to be failing some of those who need the most help to reach their potential.

Members are not alone in that concern. The Education and Training Inspectorate report of 2003-04 published the results of a survey carried out over five further education college campuses. It found that there was a marked improvement in the provision of education for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. However, three of those five colleges were concerned that the demand for community classes was greater than their ability to supply. The colleges were also concerned that there were no suitable accreditation and progression routes for students with severe learning disabilities.

It is not just the public’s concerns that are being aired by its representatives in the Chamber today — the colleges are acknowledging that something must be done to help students, because there is a gap in the provision. That is why the motion and the amendment are before the House.

The Education and Training Inspectorate report also stated that colleges considered that there was a limited availability of courses with appropriate and nationally recognised accreditation for students with more severe learning disabilities. The need is outlined in the report, and it is based on the opinions of the colleges. The Minister must acknowledge that.

I am aware that the Minister for Employment and Learning has set aside a further £1·5 million to further entice colleges to cater for more students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. This is good and necessary.

However, it does not go far enough. Much of the funding is for support and not for the establishment of courses that would improve the lives of young people with disabilities. It would be prudent to set aside a dedicated fund to ensure that colleges can offer a full prospectus to students with disabilities rather than a couple of courses of little practical help.

Although funding is crucial, a strategy must be devised to train teachers and to ensure that resources are used for the benefit of students. Statistics released by the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities show that about 100 young people with disabilities and/or learning difficulties leave special schools in Northern Ireland each year. About 20% of those are classed as having complex and multiple disabilities, and for those young people, there is often no option other than day-care provision. There are few opportunities and too few support systems to enable them to enter further education.

The £1·5 million additional funding should be distributed equally across all colleges. However, the South Eastern Regional College, which is represented in Strangford, includes the former North Down, Lisburn and East Down campuses, and yet its share of the pot is only £138,861 — less than one tenth of what it should be. How can the South Eastern Regional College provide education for those young people when the budget is too small for practical support, never mind the administration of courses?

I visited the South Eastern Regional College campus in Newtownards last week and met some of the people who participated in the excellent Prince’s Trust scheme, in which colleges should increase participation. Those people are educationally disadvantaged and, as elected representatives, we must ensure that they have the opportunity to get a foot on the ladder, find work, have ambition and move forward.

I know a 16-year-old girl with slight Down’s syndrome problems, yet no provision is made for people with that disability who want to stay at school and learn.

It is difficult for any child to make his or her way in the world and find success and happiness, but that task is much more difficult when no provision addresses the needs of those with disabilities, despite their needing extra help. I implore the Minister to devise a dedicated strategy to address the issues raised by Members and to begin a process that will change the future for many vulnerable people in the Province. I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP

It is difficult, at this late stage in the debate, to raise an issue that has not already been mentioned; nevertheless, I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I share the concern that young people with physical or learning disabilities do not benefit from further educational opportunities, and I share my colleague’s concern that the available funding does not appear to be spread equally across the boards, particularly for the South Eastern Regional College in the heart of our constituency. Will the Minister clarify why there appears to be an inequality in funding prospects for constituents in Strangford? Of course, I realise that this is a cross-cutting issue that involves the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety as well as the Department for Employment and Learning.

Strangford has a high rate of young people with special needs, and I would like to pay tribute to a charity-based project at Daisies Café in Ards Community Hospital, which trains young people with learning disabilities, particularly Down’s syndrome.

It is an absolute delight to see those young people feeling valued and looking forward to going to work, and to see the buzz that they get from feeling that they are in control. Even if they are only cleaning tables, they can feel that they have some value and some contribution to make to society. Anyone who wants a very good lunch with good-quality food at a very good price should go there.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 5:00 am, 7th April 2008

I ate all their meringue pie. [Laughter.]

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP

It is a killer, but it is lovely. The food is excellent, and I pay tribute to those who are involved in that wonderful work. However, it should not always be down to the voluntary sector alone. Everyone has a part to play.

The challenges faced by an individual should not spell the end of his or her further education or a promising career. As local representatives, we cannot stand by and let any sort of discrimination occur. Thankfully, much has been done to provide more opportunities for young people with disabilities. DEL has played an important role, and I do not wish to take away from that; however, we must encourage the Minister to have more input into funding.

It is always easy to blame the lack of funding, and other options could be considered. Although it is important to secure funding to provide long-term resources, equipment and qualified teaching staff, other options must be made available to further education colleges. For example, colleges should co-operate and collaborate, share best practice and offer teacher training. Nevertheless, it is important that not all of the emphasis is put on the colleges alone to come up with all of the answers. They, too, need our support.

Students with learning or physical disabilities should be encouraged, without differentiation from their peers, to pursue their further education and career plans. First, however, the colleges must be prepared for the intake of students with particular needs. Extra staff and resources must be accounted for so that the demand for classes is met in colleges that are accessible to young adults with disabilities.

The transfer to further education should be made as fluid as possible, with the appropriate carers advice having been offered alongside a broad range of suitable courses. Work experience and placement should also be considered as viable options, and, where possible, young people with disabilities should be afforded exactly the same opportunities as their peers. They should be able to enjoy learning in the same mixed classes.

More can always be done to ensure, first, that further education is marketed effectively, regardless of the student’s individual needs.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member’s time is almost up.

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP

Secondly, applications for places on courses must be considered without bias or discrimination.

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

It is in debates such as this that the Assembly is at its best, Mr Speaker. Although we have already discussed this subject in the past six months, the fact that it is on the agenda again so soon indicates the clear commitment and concern of many Members from all sides of the House. I welcome the opportunity to speak on these issues, and I will address as many of them as I can in the time available.

I assure the House that my Department is committed to the provision of educational training and employment opportunities for all disabled young people and adults. It is, however, important to note that further education is only one of a number of options for young people with disabilities and/or learning difficulties. In addition to further education courses, training places are provided under my Department’s Training for Success programme. Furthermore, the Department’s disability advisory service provides a range of vocational and pre-vocational programmes to meet needs of disabled people whatever their age.

The motion refers to:

“the lack of further education courses specifically targeted at young people with learning and physical disabilities”.

In the academic year 2006-07, some 16,856 students who enrolled in further education colleges declared a disability. That represents 8·2% of total further education college enrolments; the Member for West Belfast Mr Butler raised the issue of the percentages. That is an increase from 2005-06, when the percentage was 6·6%, and from 2004-05, when it was 5·9%. Clearly, it is a growing issue. I suspect that more people are declaring that they have a disability, which covers all sorts of difficulties, including dyslexia.

In addition, colleges are obliged to have regard to the needs of students who are over the compulsory school age and who have learning difficulties. All colleges offer discrete provision for students who cannot access mainstream courses. Through the college development plan process, colleges regularly examine and improve the provision for students with special needs.

Over the next year, the Department will work with colleges to introduce an individual learner programme for every young person entering further education. It will be a personalised programme of learning, which will be agreed with every young person, and it will take account of their aspirations and potential. It will be particularly valuable to young people with disabilities and learning difficulties.

To support the enrolment of students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, the Department provides funding through the further education funding mechanism. It ensures that colleges can meet the costs of students with a disability who may require specific help or assistance. As part of the Further Education Means Business review of funding, the Department, after consultation with the sector, has agreed to ring-fence funds to ensure the continued provision of discrete courses for students with learning disabilities. Some £1·5 million has been set aside for that purpose for the current academic year. An additional support fund is also available, and that will provide £1·5 million this year.

The motion refers to the lack of provision for young people over the age of 19, and there is a particular concern about that. Members on all sides raised that issue, so I will come back to it.

Further education colleges cannot always provide the attention, nursing or other personal care that some young people with disabilities require. However, colleges fully collaborate with Health Service day centres to provide training and development opportunities for people over 19 years of age who have left special schools or who might benefit from targeted further educational provision in a suitable setting.

In 2006-07, some 1,338 students between the ages of 19 and 25 who have learning difficulties and/or disabilities enrolled in further education colleges. It is important to concentrate on some of the specific points that were made, because it is obvious that many people are concerned.

During a debate in October 2007, I indicated that the Department was going to conduct a review, and Mr Attwood was keen to know the timeline for it. We will go through that stage by stage. We engaged with the Education and Training Inspectorate and invited it to carry out a review, which has already taken place. In the past few weeks, the inspectorate presented an early draft to the Department, and we are now going through it. We are also engaging with the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges.

The final phase of the review will involve engagement with third parties — that is, the community and voluntary sector, many of whom have already engaged. The review will be completed by June. I wish to make the timescale absolutely clear — it is not open-ended. We are now in the final phase of the review, which involves engagement with third parties. We did not employ outside consultants to conduct the review; it was carried out internally. Having said that, I think that there is much expertise in the Chamber, on the Committee, in the Department for Employment and Learning and other Departments, and if outside consultants had conducted the review, it would probably have taken even longer.

We all know our own local areas as well as anybody else, and we all know the experiences of individual constituents who bring their cases to us. I see no reason why we cannot carry out some of those tasks ourselves. I am confident that the Education and Training Inspectorate is highly regarded throughout the public service, and I have no doubt that Members will, when they are acquainted with the detail of the issue, be at least able to make their own judgements.

Something that is worrying many people is the interface between those students who have significant learning disabilities and the statutory sector, that is, further education institutions or DHSSPS-run day-centres. In proposing the motion, Mrs O’Neill asked whether it was appropriate for people of different ages to be grouped together, because young people were mixing with people suffering from dementia and other difficulties. She used a phrase that caught me when she said that such young people were:

“old and withdrawn before their time.”

We can all understand that. The further education sector is urged, and, indeed legally required, by the Department to provide facilities for people with physical difficulties. That requirement is laid down in the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 — the SENDO legislation — which has been mentioned. Something between £16 million and £18 million has been spent on that provision in recent years, and more is available.

At that interface stage each student has to be assessed individually; one cannot paint on a broad canvas. Each individual has their own requirements, and two are rarely the same. I understand fully that it is difficult to put a young person in a day centre with a group of older clients, many of whom may be suffering from dementia and other problems. However, people need to understand that it is not always possible for a further education college to cope with a young person who perhaps requires significant nursing facilities all day.

We face a dilemma. It is not a pass-the-parcel situation, because the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is aware of that transitional issue; indeed, I have spoken to the Minister about it. The fact is that individual students have such needs and face such barriers to learning that in some cases the only thing a college may be able to do is provide some form of intellectual stimulation. Some students perhaps have needs that are so profound that a further education college setting is not always the most appropriate solution for them.

Given that, I think that my Department and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have to examine that particular issue. That interface is the one matter that is causing a great deal of concern and, in some cases, distress to different families who are desperately anxious to ensure that the young person involved is given every possible hope of learning and of being able to have a life as best as can be arranged, given their particular learning difficulties.

Therefore, my Department is conscious that we should not get into a situation of claiming that the problem is for another Department and not ours. It is a collective responsibility for everybody and for the Assembly; otherwise, there is no point in having an Assembly. If we cannot discuss those issues and do something about them to make a difference, we would all be better out of here. I make the point clearly that we take the issue seriously, but I must say that it is a huge matter. We can push the statutory sector as far as we can where further education colleges are concerned. We do that already, and we have put a lot of money into dealing with the issue. All the funds that I have considered are increasing in every single category. For example, we have already discussed the additional support fund of £1·5 million and the discrete provision of £1·5 million.

For 2007-08, we have a further support fund of £2·8 million, which will enable colleges to help students to participate in further education. The fact that colleges may be inhibited by financial considerations has not been mentioned in the debate.

Since April 2001, DEL has spent £18 million on capital funding; and, in the four years from 2003-04 to 2006-07, a further £16·7 million has been allocated to further education colleges so that that they can provide additional auxiliary aids and services for students with disabilities. Money is going into the system, but, sometimes, problems are above and beyond money.

Parents — many of whom are in deep distress — have written, lobbied and spoken to Members, and we all want to offer solutions; however, all I can say is that the review is being completed as quickly as possible, and its findings will be available by June 2008. The Assembly and the Committee will then be able to progress to the decision stage. The problem is not just a matter of money, and I get no sense from the Department that there is a shortage of money; the problem is in knowing exactly what to do.

Mr Shannon and Mrs Robinson asked about funding for the South Eastern Regional College. Unfortunately, I cannot answer their questions — I do not know why the division is as it is — but I will deal with those points by writing to them. Nevertheless, the Department is concerned to ensure that it does everything in its power.

Mr Ross and Mr Attwood raised the matter of Ulster Supported Employment Ltd, which I have supported. I wrote to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mr Dodds, and I await a reply in order to ascertain how we can deal with that matter.

Earlier, Mr Spratt mentioned the percentage of disabled students who are in further education; however, the figure is higher than he realises.

We must progress together on this subject. We have a background of divisions about a range of issues, but this is an area in which we can show the community real leadership. We have the ability to do something about the problem; but, inevitably, there are some difficult cases, and the only way to tackle them is through individual, personal assessments.

I do not dispute that there are instances in which young people have been unable to arrange off-campus teaching at a third-party location, such as a day centre. However, such arrangements can be provided and would at least provide those young people with an opportunity for specific teaching, which would allow them some separation from those who are suffering from other concerns. That is possible: it happens, and colleges are prepared to help teachers with their training, which can be done off-site.

I assure Members that the Department will pursue the inquiry and the review as quickly as possible, and I will report back in due course.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 5:15 am, 7th April 2008

I thank all Members who took part in the debate, and I thank the Minister for his encouraging response. I echo Mr Spratt’s appeal that there should not be division on this issue. Whether Members spoke about the motion or the amendment, we are all working towards the same goal.

People with learning or physical disabilities face many difficulties in today’s society, and we should not underestimate the hurdles that they and their families face. Although I again thank the Members who took part in the debate, I share the concerns expressed by my colleague who proposed the amendment. As always, more can, and should, be done. Statistics show that throughout the UK there are a significant number of disabled young people who are neither in full-time employment nor in further education.

However, there appears to be something slightly dubious about the motion. At the moment, the situation is improving with regard to the provision of access to further education for young people with disabilities and helping young people with disabilities into employment. On top of that, the Minister is clearly committed to achieving better outcomes for those young people. The Minister has undertaken a review into his Department’s provision of further education opportunities for people with special needs in co-operation with the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges and the Education and Training Inspectorate. I agree with my colleague that it may have been better to wait until that report had been published before tabling the motion.

The Ulster Unionist Party is by no means opposed to the principle of the original motion, but I am concerned that the pre-empting of any departmental report with critical motions could set a dangerous precedent in the Assembly. When the review is published, we will be in a position to scrutinise its findings and to make recommendations and suggestions to the Minister. As the Minister outlined in his response, the Department for Employment and Learning has already taken numerous steps in the right direction towards improving the services and opportunities that are available to young people with disabilities, both in further education and in helping them to gain access to employment opportunities.

I particularly welcome the news that, in recent years, there has been increased funding to support young people with special needs who go through further education, and I hope that the Minister will pursue additional funds for that in the future. The figures showing an increase of 8·2% in total enrolment highlight that the extra money and support is beginning to work. I hope that the ongoing review will ensure further improvements in that provision.

I am also encouraged by the services that the Department currently provides to help young people with special needs to get into employment. The work of the Disablement Advisory Service should be commended, and I welcome the role of Training for Success, because it provides flexible training to facilitate personal and social needs, as well as providing essential skills training.

In tabling our amendment, the Ulster Unionist Party is not suggesting that the Minister should not be held to account. The Assembly should drive him to achieve the best possible outcomes. However, we are concerned that a dangerous precedent is being set in the House — of picking fights where there is no fight to be had. There is also a danger of dividing the Assembly, even though it is evident that all parties, and the Minister, seek the same outcome. As my colleague Basil McCrea has suggested, there are plenty of examples of intransigence in this Executive, but I do not believe that, with regard to this issue, the Minister is guilty of that. Instead of seeking confrontation, we should be seeking collective results. Of course we should scrutinise the Minister’s work and make recommend­ations, and the publication of the Department’s review will provide a basis for doing exactly that. I urge all Members to support the amendment.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Members who took part in the debate and I also thank the Minister for attending. I am happy to wind up the debate on behalf of my party, because the motion — in my view, and as others have stated — is a worthy one, which recognises the inequality in further education provision and supported-employment opportunities.

As the Member who proposed the motion stated earlier, I brought a similar motion to the Assembly six months ago that raised issues, concerns and stories that were similar to those that have been highlighted by the majority of Members who spoke in today’s debate. During that previous debate, the Ulster Unionist Party tabled an amendment calling for a review of services. I accepted that amendment because I did not want to divide the Assembly on such an important issue, and I wanted to give the Minister the opportunity — and the Department time — to make a difference on this important issue.

At that time, the Minister told us that the Department agreed to ring-fence funds as part of the Further Education Means Business review of funding. We welcome that, because we have been fighting for a long time for funds to be ring-fenced, to ensure that those funds benefit the most vulnerable people in our society.

However, in correspondence with Sinn Féin, a Mencap representative said that the Further Education Means Business strategy:

“does not recognise the need to develop targeted initiatives to address the exclusion and disadvantage experienced by people with a learning disability when accessing FE provision. The priorities set by the government in the Programme for Government and the criteria in place to provide financial assistance for students can disadvantage young people with a learning disability.”

The Mencap representative went on to highlight other issues, including the:

“failure, at strategic and operational levels, to take account of the distinct needs and interests of young people with a learning disability.”

David McClarty said that there was something “dubious” about the motion. The motion was tabled for one purpose only, which was to scrutinise the Minister and the Department. As an MLA, that is my job. Most Members who contributed to the debate, with the exception of those from the Ulster Unionist Party, welcomed the fact that the motion was brought to the House. Six months have passed since the issue was discussed, and I am glad that the Minister has been given the opportunity to outline what stage the review is at.

During the debate on the motion on 16 October 2007, the Minister told us that:

“The Department, in co-operation with the…Colleges, is currently undertaking a review of the nature and extent of special-needs provision throughout the further education network to determine how provision might best be improved”. [Official Report, Vol 24, No 8, p381, col 2].

The Minister highlighted that again today. There is a concern about the issue of colleges deciding on the courses that they offer. The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, Jimmy Spratt, outlined some of those concerns, and I will not go over all of them again. Given the recent mergers, industrial disputes and the issue of early retirement, one of the main concerns is whether the colleges are up to the challenge of delivering such important courses to young people with disabilities. We are entitled to ask questions about such issues, and we are entitled to get answers to those questions.

When proposing the amendment, my colleague from the Committee for Employment and Learning Basil McCrea informed us that the Minister is fully committed to addressing this issue. I have no problem in accepting that; I know that the Minister is committed to many issues. However, it is six months since the issue was last debated, it affects vulnerable people in our society, and we have a duty to send them and their families the clear message that we are trying to make a difference.

Basil went on to tell us that there are ways of addressing the issue without bringing it to the Floor of the House, and he appealed to us not to turn the issue into a political football, which is fair enough. Had there been any progress on the issue, we would not have felt the need to bring it back to the Floor of the House. Basil’s party leader commended us for doing so; therefore, I think that Basil has an issue. The purpose of the Assembly is to enable us to table motions in the Chamber. We have a duty to debate issues that affect our community. Basil, being Basil, tabled a motion about the classroom assistants’ dispute. Was he simply point-scoring on that issue? It is a case of swings and roundabouts.

Research undertaken by Barnardo’s in 2007 with the further education colleges, training providers and disabled young people found that disadvantage and discrimination was multilayered, as was mentioned during various contributions. Mary Bradley said that this is a cross-departmental issue. I do not dispute that, but the Department for Employment and Learning has a duty to take the lead. If that results in the Minister for Employment and Learning encouraging the involvement of other Departments on the issue, it is up to us to support him.

Some of the young people who were surveyed by Barnardo’s indicated that, at age 20, they found themselves spending their time in a day centre, even though they would have been capable of attending further education colleges. Others simply found themselves sitting at home all day. A number of young people described the experience as feeling as though they had been left in a corner and ignored. We cannot get away from the fact that that is what the young people are telling us.

As I said earlier, the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning outlined some of the key issues facing young people with disabilities, and he called on the Department to act. I support that call.

I agree with Alex Attwood — I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber as it is not that often that we agree on anything — that the Assembly should be seen to be making a difference to people’s lives, especially the most vulnerable in our community.

I will touch on some of the issues that the Minister mentioned. It is important that he took the opportunity to outline to us what stage the review has reached, and he said that it will be completed by June, which leads me to ask some other questions. I am conscious that I will not be provided with the answers today, but I would appreciate it if the Minister could provide the answers at some point.

I look forward to the outcome of that review. I ask the Minister whether there is an associated action plan that will be implemented in the aftermath. Will he indicate a time frame for the review’s completion? Perhaps June would be a good time, since it is before the September intake of some of colleges.

Will the Minister give me a list of the community and voluntary groups that provide such training and employment and outline their involvement in the review?

I am not being critical. However, it is important that Members have an idea of the nature of community and voluntary sector involvement.

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP 5:30 am, 7th April 2008

I assure the Member on both those issues. There would be little point in having a review if there was no plan to follow it up. That is unless, of course, the review found everything to be perfect — which I am sure it will not.

The community groups will be dealt with in the third phase of the review. We are happy to identify those groups — some of which are already engaged — to the Member. Indeed, we are happy to talk to any group that can bring some value to the table. I will provide the Member and the Committee with details of the groups that we will engage with.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister. It is important that we get as much information as possible. All Members who spoke recognised — and indeed expressed concern about — the lack of provision. That is not necessarily a criticism of the Minister, but it is a genuine concern that must be addressed.

In order not to divide the House on such an important issue — and having heard the Minister’s speech and the assurances that he has just given me — Sinn Féin accepts the amendment. We do so with the caveat — and this is not a threat — that our party will monitor the Department and the Minister to ensure that we get the outcomes that we have been promised; I am sure other Members will do the same.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

We will be back.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Yes, we will be back. Hasta la vista.

Our disabled young people deserve no less. I support the amendment.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses its continued commitment to securing training and employment opportunities where appropriate for young people with disabilities; and awaits the outcome of the review of such provision undertaken by the Minister for Employment and Learning.

Adjourned at 5.32 pm.