Local authority funding means conflict of interest, Natspec warns

A group of specialist colleges say there is a conflict of interest over devolving high needs funding to “compromised” local authorities and are calling on the government to step in.

Members of the Association of National Specialist Colleges (Natspec), at their annual conference in Birmingham this week, said the conflict of interest had arisen because the funding was transferred from a national level to local authorities around 18 months ago.

Dr Tina Pagett, principal of Fairfield Farm College said: “There is a conflict of interest as a result of the Children and Families Act 2014 and the devolution of high needs funding to local authorities.

“Local authorities across the country are compromised, they have a statutory duty to write Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs) for children and young people with special needs and then commission provision from a limited pot of funding which will inevitably influence and limit options presented to young people.”

Angela North, principal of Henshaws Specialist College, also expressed concern that local authority decisions now included deciding whether to pay themselves to deliver the provision.

She said: “I know of at least one local authority with their own training provision, including a contract for high needs learners.

“It is increasingly difficult for potential students and their families to see impartiality of advice and guidance when this provision is named by the local authority in EHCP plans; as a consequence there is a loss of trust.”

A spokesperson for Natspec also said most of the conference delegates stated that they had seen a significant increase in the number of learners going to tribunals to access the training and education of their choice.

Ofsted released a report into high needs learners on March 22, calling for more to be done to ensure young people with disabilities can access the most appropriate education.

The report recommended local authorities provide “consistently fair commissioning of FE places” and regularly review their offer to ensure it reflects the full range of support and opportunities available.

Between March 7 and April 17, the Department for Education (DfE) also held a consultation on improvements to the distribution of high needs funding.

In response, Natspec wrote to the DfE to call for high needs funding to be nationally managed.

“We are sympathetic to local authorities, who are in an incredibly difficult position and under huge pressure to make budgets work,” said Clare Howard, Natspec chief executive.

“As the Ofsted report highlights, there are many inconsistencies in the ways local authorities are allocating funding, leading to big variations in provision, and we believe the focus on short-term savings are leading to higher costs in the long-term.”

A DfE spokesperson told FE Week: “The [high needs funding] consultation has closed and we’re considering all responses carefully. We will be publishing the outcome and second stage of the consultation later in the year.”

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