Support for special educational needs students beyond age 16 is an area of “serious weakness” in ten areas visited by Ofsted after inspections restarted this year.
Experts have warned the situation is so bad that colleges are being left to pick up the pieces and help the learners “almost by magic”.
The watchdog told FE Week the trend is not new, “but the pandemic has certainly made issues worse.”
“It’s a real concern that young people aren’t getting the support they need as they transition between services and into adulthood.”
FE Week found ten of the 16 reports published after the inspections resumed in May highlighted problems faced by post-16 special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) learners, mostly in their transitions from school to further education or employment.
Councils were slammed by Ofsted for having “too many” young people not in education, employment or training, and for having “limited and variable” pathways to adulthood.
Inspectors also spoke with college leaders who were concerned about how accurately young peoples’ needs had been identified before they started post-16 courses.
This comes as the government last month parachuted in a SEND commissioner to remedy failures in Birmingham – the first intervention of its kind.
‘Confusion’ at transition points for SEND learners
Learners with SEND can stay in school until age 19, but can leave earlier and many will go to a college. It is estimated that over a quarter of colleges’ 16-to-18 population have SEND.
Not all will have an education, health and care plan (EHCP), which sets out the needs of a young person with SEND.
From age 19 to 23, they will leave college and move into employment or care, among other options.
It is at age points 16, 19, and when they are in their twenties that information becomes “confused” between the councils, health authorities and education providers involved in SEND services, experts say.
Young people’s transitions’ into post-16 ‘not a positive experience’
Of the 16 reports, seven out of the eight areas visited for the first time in this wave of inspections were told to produce a written statement of action owing to “significant areas of weakness in the local area’s practice”.
Sunderland is one such area, where inspectors reported a parent said: “Everything goes at 18.”
Many parents in the area “feel they need to find out everything themselves”, the report adds.
In Tower Hamlets, adult services were found to be refusing referrals from children’s health teams until a young person’s 18th birthday, which the report says “hinders effective transition planning”.
Preparation for adulthood was a “serious weakness” in Rotherham’s services, with support stopping for “too many” young people once they reach 18.
In Birmingham, young people’s transitions into employment and training are “not a positive experience” for families.
Haringey was picked up for its delays in assessments for young adults with learning disabilities, which parents said had a “negative effect” on their children’s longterm outcomes.
SEND families deal with ‘appalling’ lack of guidance
Specialist providers’ network Natspec’s chief executive Clare Howard blamed the problems on a “really appalling” lack of advice and guidance for families on post-16 options and on local authorities not engaging in a “timely manner” in what happens once a SEND learner leaves education.
Howard highlighted a comment from Haringey’s report that “preparation for adulthood is not planned well… That is a comment that could have come from anywhere,” she said.
A survey of 137 families of a young person with an EHCP, carried out by Natspec, found 58 per cent believed discussions about post-16 options came too late.
Council budgets have faced cuts, Howard reasoned, with the Department for Education pouring in millions of pounds to bail out councils with SEND funding deficits earlier this year.
The Local Government Association has called for the deficits to be written off and for the government to “urgently” complete its review of SEND services, launched in 2019.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi told MPs this week the review will be published in the first quarter of 2022.
Howard also said Ofsted tends to “overemphasise the children in schools and under-emphasise the young people in colleges”, and Natspec has “rarely” heard colleges being involved in the reviews.
Ofsted responded that FE and skills provision is an “important part” of SEND support, but they “do not focus on individual providers”, but rather “how services from health, education and care are working together to improve outcomes for children with SEND”.
Colleges having to use ‘out-of-date’ EHC plans
EHCPs were introduced in the 2014 Children and Families Act, which also brought in a SEND code of practice, mandating how councils, NHS bodies and education providers should support young people with SEND from the age of 0 to 25.
The Association of Colleges’ senior policy manager for SEND, David Holloway, argues the 2014 act is “excellent legislation, badly implemented”. The personalised EHCPs are “a positive”, but the “whole process stands or falls on its accuracy” and councils “aren’t keeping the plans up to date”.
Warwickshire’s local area SEND review, for instance, chastises the local authorities for plans that are “well out-of-date”.
Learners with an EHCP can choose which post-16 provider they wish to attend, but Holloway says colleges report this decision is often made “very late in the day”.
Local authorities are also often absent from annual reviews of EHCPs to update them with learners’ current needs, which are passed to colleges to decide whether they can take on the learner.
If the plans are out-of-date, “colleges won’t be fully informed about whether they can cater for the individual student who selects to go to that college”.
Consequently, colleges are providing to those young people “almost by magic,” Holloway said.
Howard said young people with SEND have “missed a year completely” while problems with their transition are rectified.
Councils admit there is ‘significant work to do’
Several councils have acted on their SEND provision since the publication of their area review.
In a joint statement, Sunderland’s city council, children’s services and NHS clinical commissioning group said it recognises “there is more do” to improve provision and they are “taking steps in the right direction to ensure children and families’ needs are addressed”.
Birmingham City Council told FE Week that the “local area partnership together with DfE and NHS England are working on a programme of work to address all 12 outstanding areas of significant weakness.
Progress will be monitored through the SEND Improvement Board, chaired by the DfE appointed commissioner.”
Tower Hamlets’ council and CCG admits they have “significant work to do” and plans “are in place to build on our strengths whilst improving the quality and delivery of our SEND provision to better establish and meet the needs of our children and young people”.
Rotherham Council’s assistant director for young people’s services Nathan Heath said they will publish a written statement of action in January 2022, with a “clear focus” on “developing positive transitions into post-16 pathways”.
Haringey Council’s cabinet member for families Zena Brabazon says the local authorities are “developing a partnership action plan,” focusing on young people with SEND.
The plan “greatly improves the way we co-design, co-produce, communicate, engage and interact with carers and parents going forward”.
FE providers unlikely to benefit from Budget’s £2.6bn SEND boost
Councils were handed £2.6 billion in last week’s spending review for new school places for SEND pupils, whereas post16 providers received nothing for their students.
Despite local authorities being responsible for SEND learners up to the age of 25, it is unlikely any of the £2.6 billion will go to post-16 providers.
Following the Budget, the Special Needs Jungle blog said just one per cent of non-ringfenced SEND capital grants paid to local authorities by the DfE over the past three years went to FE and early-years providers.
Ninety-five per cent went to mainstream or special schools and alternative provision providers – which educate children who are outside the school system.
When asked whether any of the £2.6 billion will go to FE providers, the LGA said it wanted the SEND review to grant “long-term certainty of funding”.
SEND consultant Barney Angliss argues the capital funding announced in the budget would not be much help to colleges though, as “just building another classroom doesn’t solve the issue”.
Students with EHCPs are “phenomenally expensive” compared to their peers, he said, and this all comes ahead of a demographic bump which will mean an extra 90,000 students in college classrooms by 2024/25, according to the AoC.
Though Angliss did say the extra money going towards school SEND places could mean specialist schools expanding their age range from 16 to 19, taking some pressure off colleges.