Talking about tomorrow


Going to college

What courses cover

College courses are usually for people over 16, although some people under 16 may do a college course while they are still at school.

Further education courses are mainly vocational, i.e. work related.

Colleges have a wider range of courses than school, and may teach in more flexible ways – full time or part time, in evening classes or by distance learning from home.

Entry requirements vary. Some courses don’t need formal qualifications, others ask for National levels in certain subjects.

Basic skills courses are useful for people with learning difficulties, as they provide support to gain independence skills as well as being a good starting point for other courses. Some are at National level, others don’t lead to a formal qualification. They include:

  • Courses in topics such as communication skills, literacy and numeracy, English for speakers of other languages and IT.
  • General courses to prepare for adult life (e.g. life or core skills).

Other courses include:

  • General courses to National, Higher or Advanced Higher level
  • Vocational (work related) courses, such as Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs) in subjects like plumbing, cookery and administration; Professional Development Awards (PDAs) in subjects like book-keeping or medical administration; and sector specific qualifications, for example for working in the care sector.
  • Courses while pupils are still in school, including link courses to help with transition to college, and Skills for Work courses to prepare for further learning or work.
  • Access to higher education courses to allow people without formal qualifications to go on to further study.
  • Customised awards designed to meet specific needs of employers or other organisations.

Lead Scotland’s Supporting You at College web page has more information.

Open or distance learning

Young people may be able to study at home or work. They could be sent a list of books and worksheets, or use study methods like the internet, videos, computer software or watching TV programmes.

They may have to attend college for practical work or supervisions, but this can often be flexible.  They will also have a college tutor who can provide guidance and support.

The college prospectus or website will give details of courses offered through flexible or distance learning and you can also filter results on the My World of Work website to view distance learning courses.

Attending a specialist college

Specialist Colleges may have more experience of supporting students with impairments. 

There is currently just one specialist college in Scotland, Corseford College based in the west and run by Capability Scotland. In addition, Cantraybridge College (not a formal college) in Inverness provides day, vocational and residential learning and development opportunities for people with additional support needs.

The rest of the UK has is a number of residential specialist colleges.

The Association of National Specialist Colleges website has more information, including on how to apply.

Choosing a course

People usually choose a course because they are interested in it or enjoy it, or because it’s likely to get them the job they want.

Young people may think they can’t study certain subjects because of their impairment, but this is mostly not the case. It can take time to get the right support in place, but don’t rule out something your young person really wants to do. Lead Scotland has information and a guide on getting support in college.

Skills Development Scotland has centres in every region offering careers advice and planning. You can find the nearest to you on their website. The My World of Work website has a Course finder tool with information about all the courses in Scotland and you can contact colleges directly for information about what they offer.

Choosing a college

Find out when the college has an open day – check their website, or phone and ask. You can tour the campus, find out about the facilities and support on offer, and discuss the course with the tutors.

Think about the location. If your young person can travel independently, how good is public transport? Will it be more challenging in winter when the nights are darker? If your young person drives ask about disabled parking spaces – these often fill up quickly.

Ask how accessible and inclusive the campus is. Colleges have a legal duty to make their facilities and courses accessible to disabled learners, but some may be better than others at supporting specific groups of students.

College websites often have a section on additional support needs, or you can phone the main office and ask for the learning support team or disability service. Ask how they support specific impairments. It’s a good sign if they have information in a range of formats you and your young person can understand.

When to apply

Each college has its own closing dates. Apply as early as possible, as courses starting in August could be fully booked by March. Begin looking and applying from November/December. Some colleges have waiting lists, so contact them even if the website says a course is fully booked.

Most applications are online, but you can ask for application forms in other formats. Some courses ask students for an interview, to sit an entry exam or to submit a portfolio of work. Students are entitled to reasonable adjustments for these, which could include more time, a reader or a communication support worker. Speak to the college if you need support with any part of the application process.

Support and how to find it

Many parents say college staff don’t include them in discussions about their young person’s progress, as students are expected to take more responsibility for themselves. This can come as a shock, especially if problems arise. It’s worth being prepared, and flagging up concerns as soon as possible.

However it’s in the college’s interest to make sure all students have the best chance of success. Support could include:

  • academic advice and information, e.g. how to organise your studies, write an essay or use computers and information technology to support your learning
  • information about funding and managing your finances
  • counselling or classes on managing stress or anxiety, especially during exams
  • identifying equipment to help you.

Websites often include this information, or you can call the college and ask to speak about finance or welfare or wellbeing services.

Every college has a department to support learners with additional needs. They are generally called something like ‘student support services’ or ‘learning support team’ or ‘disability services’.

Students may not always want people to know they are disabled, but it’s important so college staff can make the right adjustments – especially if extra time or support might be useful in exams.

If colleges offer a place to a student they know is disabled they should invite them, with their parents/carers, to discuss their support needs. If they don’t do this, you can arrange an appointment yourself. Don’t wait until the course starts, as support needs to be in place from the beginning. The college may assess your young person’s needs and discuss support that’s helped in the past. They may then create a support plan and with your young person’s permission, share it with their academic tutors.

How does support work?

Colleges are responsible for educational support. This could be things like:

  • sign language interpreters
  • assistive technology
  • a scribe/reader
  • a communication support worker
  • extra time in exams or extensions for course work.

The social services department of your local council is usually responsible for “living” support. This could include help with things like:

  • toileting and/or personal care
  • getting around campus
  • behaviour management.

Have your young person’s needs assessed by social services as early as possible if they will need a support worker to help them attend college. Our social services section has more information about this. 

All ‘supported courses’, i.e. specifically for people with learning disabilities, have extra classroom/support assistants. Some social services teams won’t fund ‘in class support’, i.e. one-to-one support around campus all day. They may argue this is the college’s responsibility, or that your young person doesn’t need one-to-one support. In this case ask if the college can offer the support your young person needs, as some may be flexible.

Sometimes colleges and social services agree to share support provision.

Lead Scotland’s guide, ‘Supporting you at College’, has more details about support and who funds it.

If you have questions about support at college or are in dispute with the college or the local authority, call Lead’s Disabled Students’ Helpline on 0800 999 2568.

Studying away from home

Young people can attend college anywhere in Scotland, but if they will be living away from home it’s important to have the skills and support they need from the start.

This can take time, so you may need longer to plan and organise their entry on a course.

The right accommodation is important, along with finding out about support options locally. Students living away from home may get extra funding from the college towards accommodation and may be able to claim universal credit to contribute towards their rent.

Anyone who needs personal assistants and adapted accommodation or specialist equipment when living away from home should contact social services where they currently live for an assessment of their needs.


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