MPs warned of a 'postcode lottery' for post-16 SEND learners

Special educational needs experts have warned of a “postcode lottery” for post-16 learners with high needs, during an education select committee roundtable this morning.

MPs heard from representatives from colleges and charities working with learners with special education needs and disabilities on the issues around post-16 education.

It was part of the committee’s inquiry into the impact of the reforms introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014 which, among other things, extended local authorities’ statutory duty towards those with SEND up until the age of 25.

It seems to be a big tangled mess

Di Roberts, principal of Brockenhurst College and chair of the Association of Colleges’ SEN group, said the reforms had helped “raise the profile of the FE and post-16 providers with local authorities”, as previously “we were the hidden sector and we were doing brilliant work with our young people but I don’t think the local authorities understood”.

But Pat Brennan-Barrett, principal of Northampton College, said she was “deeply concerned” about the “postcode lottery of funding, the devolvement of the budget, the interpretation of the language of the code, and how that is used”.

Her views were echoed by Beatrice Barleon, policy development manager at Mencap, who told MPs that one of the challenges of the reforms was the “implementation across all the different local authorities”.

Ms Roberts gave the example of East Kent College, which took its local authority to judicial review “as they didn’t feel that the authority was funding them correctly, or understanding”.

Through the “perseverance of the principal and the team there” they had agreed a three year funding deal which “gives the college that certainty about being able to invest, to have the staffing necessary”, she said.

That deal was “better than what we have in most places where it’s literally one year to the next,” she said.

She also spoke about the “time, effort and money” that had been wasted on the “bureaucracy” of the system.

“If you’re working with 10s of local authorities they often have different systems, different requirements,” she said.

“If I could take away from my frontline people all the paper work and bureaucracy and put that into frontline delivery that wouldn’t cost any more money and would make the limited resources go further.”

If I could take away from my frontline people all the paper work and bureaucracy and put that into frontline delivery

Other issues highlighted included the “trend to only give education and health care plans to the age of 19” – meaning that colleges were having to use adult funding to provide support to learners with SEND older than 19.

“We do that. We can’t afford to continue doing that. It’s costing us over £300,000 a year,” said Ms Brennan-Barrett.

Ms Roberts said that, although officials working in high needs in the Department for Education were “incredibly supportive”, official guidance from the department said that “the majority of young people with EHC plans should complete their education by 19” – which she described as “totally unrealistic”.

The high-needs budget is devolved to local authorities, and “has to be divided between a five-year-old and a 25-year-old” – which created pressure, according to Ms Brennan-Barrett.

“Under the disability act it is necessary to make reasonable adjustments. We’re not making those reasonable adjustments with the local devolvement,” she said.

Decisions on how the money was spent were made at the local schools forum, at which the college just had one vote among 40 schools “even though we represent more people at 16 to 18,” she said.

After hearing the evidence, education select committee chair Robert Halfon said the picture of post-16 funding for learners with SEND “seems to be a big tangled mess”.