As a leader of a college judged outstanding by Ofsted, I was recently asked what pressures I faced from the structural changes to education and the harsh economic climate.
David Lewis College is one of 60 independent specialist colleges (ISCs) in the UK providing day and residential FE to around 3,000 students with a wide range of disabilities and challenging behaviours.
Students attend ISCs when all other options have been exhausted or shown not to be appropriate.
Our whole team — teachers, learning assistants, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, psychologists and a range of medical clinicians — are involved in planning, delivering and evaluating the impact of our students’ learning.
This multidisciplinary approach undoubtedly pays dividends as we manage, very successfully, our students’ learning, medical conditions and complex behaviours.
But it is obviously resource-intensive and comes at a cost. Most students require full-time one-to-one support from a learning assistant.
We feel it is an investment that is fair, proportionate and well worth making. It benefits not only our young people and their families but, ultimately, all of society by developing essential daily living skills and reducing lifetime NHS costs through improving the long-term prognosis of adults with complex medical needs.
How disappointing it was, then, to hear recently from one local authority commissioner that it does not want to pay for a “Rolls-Royce, when a Mini would do”.
At David Lewis we have had to manage cost carefully, having received no inflationary increase in funding for many years.
We believe that we offer exceptional value for money – a balance between quality and cost. But our definition of value is not one always shared by our partners. Many see only the cheapest option.
Under the guise of “austerity” are we starting to see a race to the bottom where the cheapest option for a local authority equates to the best option for a young learner?
Ultimately, is this how we want to provide further education for some of the most vulnerable young people?
The principal challenge that I face is trying to plan for the future of all our students against a background of change and what appears to be a developing reluctance by some local authorities to fund the FE of young people with a wide range of disabilities.
This creates uncertainty — for vulnerable young people and their families who have no idea whether they will be attending college in September or not, for ISC managers who do not know how many students to plan for, and for teachers and specialist support staff who do not know if they’ll have a job.
The new Children and Families Bill, the devolution of funding and the potential for every local authority to set its own funding criteria and different information and data in different forms, makes things far more complicated than they need to be.
It is, of course, for society to decide what level of investment, if any, we are prepared to make in our most vulnerable young people’s FE.
We then could plan in a coherent way, maximising the benefits that we can offer our vulnerable young learners and matching the available funding.
Local authorities have had at least 19 years to work with parents, to plan and decide whether a student will benefit from FE at an ISC and to budget for the costs. There should be no surprises and no uncertainty.
Billy McInally, director of education, David Lewis College, Cheshire