The specialist FE sector should have its own clear ministerial brief

The status quo of specialist further education falling through the cracks of ministerial responsibility has gone on for long enough

The status quo of specialist further education falling through the cracks of ministerial responsibility has gone on for long enough

24 Mar 2024, 5:00

Whenever the election takes place, it is essential that the next government take a more coordinated approach to specialist FE. Clear lines of responsibility are needed to truly support young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Specialist FE colleges play a vital role within the wider FE and Skills sector for 16-25 year-olds with complex needs. But they are often overlooked because of a disconnect between responsibility for SEND, which lies with the minister for children, families and wellbeing, and responsibility for FE, overseen by the minister for skills, further and higher education.

The SEND and alternative provision improvement plan pledged better integration of specialist colleges with FE and SEND policies. But meaningful steps have not yet been taken.

As a result, there is poor coordination and policy fragmentation for SEND in FE. The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. Schools dominate SEND policy and FE is often overlooked. Local authority schools forums make decisions on high needs budgets, and according to research by Special Needs Jungle high needs provision capital allocations will create just 160 places in FE – less than on per cent of the 20,000 new specialist places being created.

Meanwhile, there is a similar lack of consideration of SEND within FE policy. The recent change to the condition of funding rules demonstrate this with a one-size-fits-all approach that overlooks diverse and complex learning needs.

In a survey of 46 Natspec colleges, 91 per cent said that the new minimum teaching hours would have a negative impact on some or all of their students who are studying qualifications. Nearly 81 per cent said that the requirement for “stand-alone, whole-class, in-person teaching” would have a negative impact due to the importance of a person-centred approach, small groups and 1:1 interventions.

Overcoming neglect requires a unified strategy

Such neglect of SEND within FE policy has also resulted in underfunding. Despite being entirely state-funded, specialist colleges are not in scope for FE capital funds at all, and receive an average of just £40,000 annually for all their capital needs – a drop in the ocean. They depend on donations, fundraising and reserves to maintain and repair aging buildings.

Failing to co-ordinate across briefs leads to inefficiencies, limited accountability and policy fragmentation. Specialist colleges are under-valued and fall between two stools, with each Department for Education (DfE) minister wrongly presuming the other is primarily responsible for SEND in FE.

Neither the two ministers nor their officials offer any clear leadership, and they do not appear to be working actively together to ensure a joined-up policy for the sector. We often find ourselves signposted to different teams, each with a limited understanding of either FE and Skills, or SEND.

Recent discussions with Robert Halfon indicate ministers are beginning to recognise the issue. The Labour Party has also shown a promising commitment to a ‘joined up’ approach to specialist FE. Seema Malhotra MP, the shadow minister for skills spoke at Natspec’s 2024 manifesto launch, also attended by Helen Hayes MP, the shadow minister for children and early years.

However, we need more than talk. Overcoming the neglect of specialist FE requires a unified strategy.

Specialist FE providers should be formally, firmly and overtly placed within the minister for skills and FE’s brief. That minister should be the main point of contact for specialist FE and also be responsible for ensuring that the minister for children, families and wellbeing considers the needs of FE providers within 0-25 SEND policy. No more being passed from pillar to post. 

In addition, there should be regular joint meetings between the specialist FE sector and both ministers. They should mandate their two DfE teams to collaborate, ensuring that no FE policy is introduced without consideration of learners with SEND, and no SEND policy is introduced without consideration of FE, including specialist provision.

An inclusive, bold strategy is overdue. Allocating responsibility, with methods of collaboration across ministerial briefs baked in, is essential – not only to support the sector but to support the government’s own goals of reducing the disability employment gap and encouraging economic growth.

The next government must actively champion specialist FE with clear, dedicated leadership and accountability so that specialist FE no longer falls through the cracks.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *