The government should mandate local authorities to include specialist colleges in the new inclusion plans, writes Clare Howard
Nadhim Zahawi introduced the long-awaited SEND green paper on Tuesday with the promise of “a more inclusive and financially sustainable system, where every child and young person will have access to the right support, in the right place, at the right time”.
But will the proposals work for further education? And will they help specialist colleges to contribute to the system in a meaningful way?
Unfortunately, FE and preparation for adulthood make up only two of the 100-plus pages, and much of that has already been announced. As for specialist colleges, they are barely mentioned!
None of this would matter if all of the issues and solutions applied equally to colleges as well as to schools. Some of them do – proposals for standardised EHCPs, consistent national standards and local inclusion plans could all bring benefits for FE if properly implemented.
But much of the green paper is taken up with issues that predominately affect schools.
Where there are measures specific to FE, specialist colleges are mostly out of scope, for example, in relation to the skills bill requirements and the FE performance dashboard.
Overall, at the heart of the green paper is an ambition for a SEND system that is “more inclusive” and “financially sustainable”. So, for instance, the government argues that more pupils should remain in inclusive, less costly mainstream provision.
But how does this relate to colleges? With 90 per cent of college students with EHCPs already in mainstream settings, we don’t need any drivers to increase the proportions of students with SEND in mainstream settings.
What we do need is a reasonable level of funding, and access to more specialist expertise.
So the government must increase funding for those on SEN support in colleges, to match what is available for school children. Colleges also need help in addressing the recruitment and retention crisis for specialist staff across the sector.
The green paper also has a section on investing in high-quality specialist placements, but it focuses on developing local maintained and free special schools, to reduce the reliance on independent special schools.
It has nothing to say about supporting specialist FE provision.
What we need is a clear acknowledgement of the role of different types of FE providers, and a funding and commissioning system that is consistent across both general and specialist FE colleges. This would allow LAs to commission joint placements and encourage joint working.
An end to the binary place-planning system would open up new opportunities for students with SEND.
Let’s turn now to achieving financial viability. Spend on specialist FE provision has not risen in the same way as it has for schools.
Local authority data show that spending from the high-needs pot on post-16 specialist providers for 2021/22 is actually lower than it was in 2017/18.
So there is really no financial imperative to save money by reducing the number of placements in specialist colleges.
Government should acknowledge the critical role played by specialist colleges, and mandate LAs to include them within new local SEND partnerships and inclusion plans. The uncertainty of annual funding agreements should also end.
Specialist college buildings should be eligible for the £2.6 billion capital funding
At the very least, with 58 per cent of specialist college buildings now in need of urgent repair, government should make them eligible for the FE capital transformation fund and mandate LAs to invest a proportionate amount of the new £2.6 billion SEND capital funding to FE.
Finally, inclusion plans must end the knee-jerk creation of new colleges and replace that with planned investment into existing colleges to meet demand where that is more appropriate.
Any new national banding system either needs to be extremely flexible to accommodate young people with the most complex needs who do not fit neatly into standard categories – or it should be acknowledged that these individuals sit outside of it.
We cannot afford another legislative framework that does not deliver on its intentions, and we are determined that this opportunity is not lost.