Pioneering employer partnerships have helped us plug the SEND budget gap

Paul Cook explains how his specialist college has leveraged private sector funding to help plug the funding gap for his learners

Paul Cook explains how his specialist college has leveraged private sector funding to help plug the funding gap for his learners

12 Mar 2024, 5:00

FE Week recently revealed that councils have spent just one per cent of funds earmarked for SEND places with post-16 providers. Yet as a specialist college for young people with complex disabilities and learning difficulties, we are dependent on local authority funding for the provision that our 320 full-time students need.

The long-term squeeze on public sector budgets means we have had to find additional ways to fund skills-based provision – essential if we are to buck a disgraceful national trend which sees less than five per cent of people with learning disabilities in paid employment.

So eight years ago we launched our first supported internship programme with Severn Trent Water, giving our learners high-quality work placements with a realistic chance of securing a job at the end of the year. I’m delighted to report it’s still going strong.

This led to similar partnerships with other major businesses which saw the huge potential workforce in SEND specialist colleges, including Holiday Inn, West Midlands Police and Evtec Automotive.

In 2019 another employer partner, Premier Inn, opened a three-room training hotel at our Coventry campus, a significant investment and a huge vote of confidence in the college.

Five years on and Hereward is working with parent company Whitbread PLC to help deliver the national rollout of its Thrive programme, which aims to place mini training hotels across the country while delivering on a stated 100 internship places per year for young people with disabilities and learning difficulties.

We are now looking at two more mini hotels dedicated to the training of learners with SEND being constructed in new geographical locations by September.

Having run supported internships since 2016, we have never encountered a large employer which has been committed to enhancing the capital resources of specialist FE providers in the way Whitbread has.

Nationally, 4.8 per cent are in paid employment – a shameful statistic

Indeed, Janet Tidmarsh, head of inclusion and development at Whitbread, says the partnership is just as beneficial to the hospitality giant as I know it is for the college and its learners. The company recognises the value of a more diverse workforce, and employing more young people with special educational needs is an important part of its people strategy.

This innovative approach has brought a number of additional benefits to the college, alongside the private sector investment which we simply could not have achieved through the public purse in the current climate.

Last year, our supported internship programme had a 100 per cent retention rate and a 94 per cent pass and achievement rate for our 32 interns on 12-month employment placements. The very positive outcomes saw 81 per cent of participants going on to gain paid or voluntary work. This compares to only 4.8 per cent of people with learning disabilities being in paid employment in England – a shameful statistic.

This did not go unnoticed when a team of ten Ofsted inspectors, including a national lead for skills, visited our Tile Hill campus last April. We received the highest possible grade for skills while our high needs provision, which includes all of our full-time learners, was graded as ‘Outstanding’.

The college now wants to share its success to further the employment needs of young people with SEND. I currently chair the national employment forum for Natspec members and the Regional Colleges West Midlands SEND group. Deputy principal, Rosie Herbert has also joined the Natspec Centre for Excellence Communities of Practice programme which enables colleges to share best practice, network and discuss current issues.

The world of work has recognised the value of investing in inclusive workplaces and in staff that represent our whole communities. Every college should be reaching out to ensure their learners with SEND know the career pathways that are available to them and are empowered to access them. 

For too long, a lack of aspiration for learners with SEND has held them back from being economically active and from finding the personal fulfilment that comes with that. We can’t let lack of funding be the new barrier to their progress.

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