Staff shortages, leadership gaps, and a lack of accountability have been blamed for a spate of ‘inadequate’ inspection results of colleges working with the most vulnerable students.
Independent specialist colleges (ISCs) provide post-16 education and training to young people and adults with learning difficulties and/or disabilities.
As well as education and training, specialist colleges must also cater for learners’ mental and physical care needs, and help students with life and employment skills. They are funded by both the ESFA and local authorities.
Specialist colleges are independent with their own legal status, including charitable status, and are inspected by Ofsted. But, unlike general FE colleges and independent training providers, there is no clear intervention regime or support structure for this part of the sector.
As a result of poor inspection outcomes, one specialist college was forced to close earlier this year after having its contract terminated by the ESFA and its local authority. Another has been warned it will face an ESFA funding review if it fails to improve by early next year.
FE Week analysis of recent ‘inadequate’ inspection reports found poor leadership, staffing shortages and several safeguarding breaches have concerned inspectors.
In the years between 2017 to 2021, there were only four ‘inadequate’ Ofsted inspections at independent specialist colleges. But there were seven inadequate inspections in 2021/22, whose reports are peppered with issues surrounding staff shortages, curriculum shortfalls, and leadership challenges.
A spokesperson from Ofsted emphasised that these challenges are only part of the picture. Although there has been an increase in the proportion of inadequate judgements, the proportion of specialist colleges judged as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rose to 79 per cent by August 31, 2022 – a 5 percentage point increase compared to last year.
Ruth Perry, senior policy advisor for NATSPEC, the representative body for specialist colleges, explains that the issues have been around for a while, but she doesn’t think there is a common theme behind the ‘inadequate’ grades. Rather the weight of a succession of historic problems has culminated to overwhelm a small proportion of smaller providers.
Colleges have been struggling to recruit staff from all levels, including governors, senior leaders, teachers and learning support staff, as well as specialist therapists and behaviour analysts.
Perry explains that the whole FE sector is currently facing challenges in recruiting staff. “This is being felt acutely by specialist colleges where difficulties in sourcing appropriately skilled and often highly specialist staff have had a detrimental impact on provision.
“Training new staff and agency staff in time to ensure continuous high standards of provision is also a challenge. Natspec has been lobbying DfE on the staffing crisis since last winter to help address the potential risks to provision for learners with the most complex needs.”
There has been a challenging recruitment crisis across the whole FE sector for a long time. An Association of Colleges survey carried out earlier this year showed that there are around 6,000 job vacancies in the general FE sector. According to the AoC this is the highest number of vacancies seen in “two decades”.
Ongoing wage issues
Perry explains that this challenge is put under further pressure from the loss of staff to the hospitality, retail and catering sectors.
According to David Holloway, senior SEND policy manager at the AoC, where funding is provided by local authorities, specialist colleges are unable to pay staff like teaching assistants more than the minimum wage. He says such low pay means that it is difficult to recruit to the sector.
According to the National Careers Service, the average salary for a full time SEN teaching assistant is between £14,000 and £23,000 per year – below the national living wage.
Research from the DfE in 2019 showed that teaching assistants were consistently asked to carry out a huge range of other tasks, including providing personal care and monitoring medical equipment or administering medication.
Farleigh Further Education College in Frome received an ‘inadequate’ inspection in February. The inspectorate found in the follow up visit that despite the college making ‘reasonable progress’, not all the students had access to specialist therapy required to help them access the curriculum.
This was because “leaders had been unable to obtain the services of fully trained staff.”
The inspector noted that plans were in place to address this, and leaders are working with a local university to provide placement opportunities for year 3 occupational therapists.
Without the right staff, SEND learners struggle to access the curriculum which compromises the quality of learning.
Progress being made
Ruth Perry says that whilst it is concerning that there are seven ‘inadequate’ specialist colleges, the most recent monitoring visits suggest that some colleges are making encouraging progress.
If a specialist college receives an ‘insufficient’ judgement for safeguarding, the DfE says it will be removed automatically from its section 41 list – a list of approved independent special schools and special post-16 institutions. Some local authorities will only fund a college if it is on that list.
If a local authority declines to pay for new students or withdraws funding for existing students, this can make the college unviable and result in its closure.
Specialist college My Life Learning announced its closure to new students in July after its ESFA and local authority funding was pulled following an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted inspection outcome. The inspection followed two monitoring visits, the first of which provided ‘insufficient progress’ ratings across the board.
An agreement has been reached between the ESFA, the local authority and the college to transition learners to new provision, which is currently underway.
Clarity around inspections
Unlike the general FE college and independent training provider sectors, what happens when a specialist college receives an ‘inadequate’ inspection report is unclear. Specialist colleges are not part of the FE
Commissioner’s remit and local authorities are able to decide their own approaches to support, intervention and, ultimately, contract termination in the wake of poor performance.
The Michael Tippett College received an ‘insufficient progress’ monitoring visit report this week following an inadequate inspection result back in March, which included ineffective safeguarding. But it’s funding hasn’t been withdrawn.
Perry Vlachos, the acting head of Michael Tippett College, told FE Week his college has one more chance to show its improvement.
Vlachos explains that if the college fails to make improvements by the next Ofsted inspection, expected in early 2023, this could trigger a review of funding arrangements by the ESFA.
NATSPEC’s Ruth Perry suggests that statutory duties on colleges and local authorities are not being enforced, and a lack of sanctions is holding back improvement. She says it doesn’t seem right that you can have a set of duties that aren’t fulfilled, and nothing happens as a result.
Those duties are set out in the government’s SEND code of practice. The code, at nearly 300 pages, sets out expectations for high-quality education and transparent decision-making with local authorities.
“If colleges were delivering against the current SEND code of practice, then these issues wouldn’t be happening. Why are there no sanctions for a local area when they don’t fulfil duties?” Perry asks.
“You can never just throw money at a problem, can you? You’d still need a relentless focus on quality improvement. Extra money doesn’t buy that, you’ve got to put the work in.”
“I feel for local authorities because they’re trying to work with an amount of funding that doesn’t stretch to cover everything that they need to do well but the fact you can fail to comply with impunity, that’s problematic for the system,” Perry says.