After an extended period of review and consultation – and many missed deadlines – at last we have a SEND and alternative provision (AP) improvement plan. But has it been worth the wait? For the FE sector, the answer has to be no.
It’s no surprise that the improvement plan is largely focused on addressing the two key issues that were foremost in the SEND and AP green paper: the spiralling costs of the system, in particular the call on the high needs budget, and the rising numbers of children with SEND being educated outside of mainstream schools.
National standards setting out ordinarily available provision may well help in this mission.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the tension between retaining young people’s rights and reducing costs can be satisfactorily resolved.
The increased focus on accountability, with more oversight and clearer sanctions for local authorities failing to fulfil statutory duties, is welcome. Lack of accountability has certainly been a factor in the failure of the current SEND system.
Of course, Natspec was hoping that the improvement plan would include some bold reforms to address the intransigent issues affecting 16-25 year olds, especially those with more complex needs.
Sadly, they are not to be found. There is more post-16 content than in the green paper but that is a pretty low bar.
We may have played a small part in ensuring some of the more controversial proposals in the green paper, such as tailored lists and mandatory mediation, are trialled before final decisions about implementation are made. But we haven’t seen these off by any means.
Our disappointment is rooted in the missed opportunity to set out a vision for 16-25 SEND provision that addresses the key challenges in meeting the needs of young people effectively.
What the improvement plan offers is an assortment of initiatives already announced: investment in supported internships, the access to work passport and qualification reform.
There is an acknowledgement of the need for reform but without any new commitments, for example, on re-working the dysfunctional FE funding system or providing dedicated funding for students with lower-level needs. All we get here is a promise to keep working with the sector to find solutions.
The main offer to FE is new transition standards. These may be helpful, but they will need to drive change well beyond interactions between schools and colleges if young people are to be spared the anxiety caused by late decision-making and missed statutory deadlines.
We were hoping for clear recognition that that the circumstances of FE are very different from the school sector.
While only 50 per cent of children with EHCPs are in mainstream schools, 90 per cent of FE EHCP-holders are in general FE colleges.
The issue in FE is how to keep it that way. There are already early signs of a slow but steady increase in demand for specialist college places. We need an equivalent commitment of funding to support SEND learners in mainstream FE colleges as that going to mainstream schools.
We also need similar levels of support for specialist colleges as that shown for maintained special schools. While £2.6 billion has been poured into funding new special school places and a new tranche of special free schools will be opening, specialist colleges are in desperate need of capital funding just to maintain the fabric of their buildings in many cases.
Surely the children who benefit from these brand new special schools also deserve high quality facilities when they move on to college?
Government could have required local authorities to commit a proportionate amount of funding to those aged 16-25 or at least been explicit in stating that the funding should be used to secure quality provision in local specialist colleges as well as special schools.
Omissions like this leave us uncertain as to the government’s understanding of and commitment to specialist further education.
They tell us that they have heard from Natspec and its members that specialist colleges are often regarded by local authorities as external rather than integral to the FE system. They propose to work with us to review the way the Department defines and manages specialist further education.
It’s just a pity they didn’t set that in motion within the improvement plan itself.