Councils have spent just one per cent of a grant pot earmarked for creating tens of thousands of new specialist education places on post-16 providers, new data has revealed.
Of the £1.55 billion used by local authorities from the high needs provision capital allocation (HNPCA) grant to date, £20 million has gone towards post-16 learners.
From the 20,000 SEND places this funding creates, only 160 will be for young people with SEND in post-16 education.
The grant was announced by the Department for Education in 2021 when ministers committed £2.6 billion to spend over three financial years, from April 2022 to March 2025. By the start of 2024, £1.55 billion had been distributed. The remainder will be handed over in the 2024-25 financial year.
SEND experts said the level of spend on post-16 places “wasn’t a surprise, but it was disappointing”.
Matt Keer, SEND specialist at the Special Needs Jungle website which obtained the data through a Freedom of Information request, told FE Week: “With FE, the SEND system rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and it’s happened again with this capital grant.
“Young people with complex special educational needs often have few local choices when they reach 16. This funding will make very little difference to their situation.”
Clare Howard, chief executive of specialist college membership organisation Natspec, added: “It’s disappointing as we’ve been pushing DfE and local authorities for years to remember post-16 and further education in those grant allocations.”
A Local Government Association (LGA) spokesperson said: “These are local decisions for councils to make, in consultation with parents and schools. Councils would likely have consulted SEND groups and these decisions therefore reflect local priorities.
“The Department for Education has indicated that they want most of the funding directed to schools, with capital funding likely going to new places in special schools, where there is a shortage of spaces.”
The LGA spokesperson added: “Post-16 colleges are more flexible and can accommodate SEND without building new sites due to the lack of limits on class sizes.”
Howard disagreed. “There are a lot of colleges finding it very difficult to find spaces for the number of young people that need places in further education across general FE and specialist colleges,” she said.
“Most of our members have restricted sites. They may well be able to put extra buildings on that site, but they don’t have the capital funding to do that.
“Most of our members are charities, and they’ve had to use their charitable funding, they’ve had to draw down reserves from their charity to build new spaces for these learners.”
A 2021 Natspec survey found that 53 per cent of 125 member colleges had buildings in need of urgent repair, or within the next two years. The majority (96 per cent) of colleges said that their buildings would need repairs within 10 years.
Howard pointed out that specialist colleges are also locked out of the £1.5 billion FE capital transformation fund, the £1 billion plus school transformation fund, and are unable to bid for the post-16 capacity fund available to FE colleges.
Calls have been renewed for the government to create a separate capital improvement fund for specialist colleges to develop their estates.
In October, conservative MP Jo Gideon wrote to the minister for children, families and wellbeing David Johnston to call for FE’s eligibility for capital funding rounds and a one-off urgent capital improvement fund.
“This lack of access to capital funding is adversely affecting some of the most vulnerable 16 to 25-year-olds currently in the system,” she wrote. “They are learning in cold, drafty and damp buildings, as a result of failing boilers, leaking roofs and single-glazed windows, or in teaching spaces that cannot adequately accommodate their wheelchairs or the specialist equipment they need to hand.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is the decision of the local authorities to determine how best to use their high needs capital allocations to meet local priorities.
“Local authorities can use their high needs capital allocation to work with any school or institution in their area, including academies. They are also free to choose to spend the funding across the 0-25 age range, including in dedicated post-16 institutions or other FE settings.”