The FE sector has worked really hard to support learners with additional needs, but Covid has been so damaging, writes Paul Joyce

Recently we reported on some of the challenges that children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities have faced during the pandemic.

Our findings are based on a series of joint visits to local areas, carried out with the Care Quality Commission (CQC). They highlight just how damaging Covid-19 has been for young people with SEND, including those aged 16 to 25.

All children and young people have lost out on so much during the pandemic, and young people with SEND in further education are no exception.

But it’s clear that the sector has gone above and beyond, despite great adversity, to help young people learn and to keep them safe.

Most independent specialist colleges and general FE colleges stayed open during the three lockdowns for very vulnerable young people and key worker children.

Staff worked tirelessly to provide a service, although this tended to focus more on young people’s health and wellbeing than their education.

While many young people with SEND returned to their colleges in the autumn, it wasn’t possible for all – especially in smaller providers.

Although some learners returned briefly to college in the autumn term, they stopped again when the government’s guidance on shielding was updated.

Learners who couldn’t attend in person received remote education. Many young people coped well, but others struggled – some finding it hard to use the technology and to engage with their teachers through a screen.

We know many providers worked really hard to get paper-based and practical resources, such as cooking ingredients, to learners, delivering them by hand to their homes.

We even heard of providers taking food parcels to young people’s families who were in crisis.

Some young people with SEND had moved to a different further education provider in September 2020, but still weren’t attending in person because of health or other concerns.

Some who returned in person hadn’t made new friends, having missed out on the usual transition activities ̶ although many providers went out of their way to help learners settle in, managing transition 1:1 out of hours, so learners could familiarise themselves with the setting.

Young people told us that the pandemic had been an incredibly lonely time. Not only were they missing out on seeing friends at college, many were also shielding for health reasons.

Some had only left the house a few times since the start of the first national lockdown, and even then, this was only for medical appointments.

While some young people could chat with friends online, this wasn’t possible for others, who have difficulties communicating in this way.

Many providers recognised this, and found new ways of keeping young people in touch with their friends.

All young people missed out on academic learning and had exams and work experience cancelled. For young people with SEND, the pandemic also affected access to specialist therapies and support.

Some were able to carry on with these at home – providers used videos to help young people continue with physiotherapy, and work online with their speech and language therapists.

But in some cases, we heard that young people’s mobility and communication skills have deteriorated.

Many young people have missed out on the vital preparation and training they need to progress to the next stages of education or work, and some said they were anxious about their futures, particularly their employment prospects.

Many providers have extended young people’s learning programmes to provide them with opportunities to develop the skills that they need, particularly for independent living.

It’s clear that across the FE sector, providers have worked incredibly hard to help young people learn and to keep them safe over the past 16 months – and at times this has been an uphill struggle.

As we emerge from the pandemic, the need to put young people with SEND at the heart of recovery plans couldn’t be clearer.

In the coming months, we’ll be working closely with the CQC on new area SEND inspections.

The new approach will help bring improvement in the way education, health and care services work together to get the best possible outcomes for young people with SEND.