Further Education Provision for Young People with Disabilities

Part of Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:30 am on 7th April 2008.

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Photo of Paul Butler Paul Butler Sinn Féin 4:30 am, 7th April 2008

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 —