A “radical” shake-up of the “overly complicated” high needs FE system is required, following a quadrupling in the number of learners with special educational needs and disabilities, new research has found.

The Association of Colleges, specialist providers’ organisation Natspec, and the Local Government Association (LGA) have today released a joint report into the planning, commissioning, funding and support of provision for post-16 high needs learners.

It found a litany of problems with the system, including Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) which are “not sufficiently up to date”; statutory deadlines being missed; arrangements for transitioning learners from school to further education being delayed, and possibly not taking place at all.

High needs learners are jointly funded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency and local authorities. Under the current system, the ESFA pays £5,200 for every student, regardless of whether they are high needs. The agency then pays an additional £6,000 per place for each high needs student to their college or specialist provider, but claims this against the local authority’s budget. The local authority then pays any costs to the provider for delivering to a high needs student above an £11,200 threshold.

In the report, the £5,200 funding for every student is higher than the £4,188 base rate for 16 to 18-year-olds which the government introduced this academic year, because the authors say the former figure includes adjustments for student retention, programme cost weightings, and disadvantage funding.

Chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, Judith Blake, said an “overhaul and streamlining” was needed for processes to improve the system for local authorities and colleges.

She continued: “This has become more urgent due to the huge increase in size and complexity of the task faced by councils and providers in supporting young people with SEND, with funding not keeping up with the rising demand for support.”

The report’s authors say the number of 16 to 25-year-olds with an EHCP, or a SEND statement, has quadrupled between 2015 and 2020, from 25,548 to 108,308.

The rise has been caused by a number of factors, including the Children and Families Act 2014 extending EHCP eligibility up to 25 years of age, which brought more people into the system.

At the same time as this increase in demand, the AoC and Natspec say their members are facing financial pressures due to a “squeeze” on local authority budgets and real terms cuts to FE funding over the past ten years.

So a “more radical re-working of the whole system” of high needs post-16 system is required, as the report’s authors found demand for places is likely to be outstripping supply in many local authorities, and providers are having to invest in creating extra capacity without the promise of a return.

Although £700 million in high needs post-16 funding was announced for 2020-21 at the Spending Round in 2019, the report cites LGA research which found councils face a high-needs deficit of at least £889 million for that period, owing to the rising demand. 

The AoC’s SEND policy officer Liz Maudslay said that while they welcome the 2014 reforms, for them to be “effective, there is a need for significant changes to implementation processes”.

The report recommends greater planning of provision, after it had seen “little evidence that longer term planning of post-16 High Needs provision is currently taking place”.

Planning could be aided by having “block agreements”, where providers and local authorities agree funding for provision as a block rather than at an individual learner level.

This, the report reads, could “guarantee a fixed level of income in respect of a target number of 16+ young people with high needs, simplify the costing of provision, and thereby facilitate the planning process”.

Another theme of the report is greater collaboration: between providers, and between them and their local authorities.

Authorities should involve all post-16 providers in regular strategic planning discussions about provision for learners who are leaving school provision, the report argues.

Furthermore, post-16 providers should be given access to pre-16 learners earlier, as it would make it “more likely the young person’s post-16 needs and aspirations will be known in good time,” and planning their transition to the post-16 provider will be “more effective”. 

Natspec chief executive Clare Howard welcomed this recommendation in particular, as she says: “The detrimental effects of the system on all young people are amplified for the small number with the most complex needs, who require more specialist provision.” 

Another recommendation is for the “currency and content” of EHCPs needs to be improved to be fit for post-16 purposes, with the report saying plans are often not updated, “too many” reports display “little or no knowledge of the further education sector,” and providers feeling there is little point securing EHCPs as students could be with them for just two years, and additional SEND funding is “limited”.

Natspec, the AoC and the LGA commissioned acl consulting to carry out this research. The authors interviewed 25 local authority staff at 10 authorities, and 50 staff from 28 providers – 14 GFECs and 14 specialist post-16 institutions – as well as several stakeholders, representatives of the study sponsors, and other interested parties.

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