In Wales, a consultation undertaken by the Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education Committee has asked if disabled children and young people have equal access to education and childcare. We have responded that for post-16 learners with complex additional learning needs (ALN) the answer is no.
We have said that inequities within current arrangements will be compounded as post-16 aspects of the ALN reforms are implemented and that ambiguities in the ALN Code, access to information and guidance and the exclusion of learners with complex ALN from Wales FE data collection must be addressed.
Unlike in England where preferred post-16 providers can be named on Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), comparable learners in Wales have no choice. The default position is that special school leavers progress to their regional Further Education Institution (FEI) on what are typically referred to as independent living skills (ILS) programmes. Should a learner, their parents or other stakeholders think that the provision at their local FEI is inappropriate, there is very little they can do. It is not until the young person’s regional FEI states they are unable to meet a learner’s ALN and an LA official subsequently deems the learner has a ‘reasonable need’ for education and training that the specialist further education (FE) they may need can be considered.
Akin to SEND reform in England, the ALN transformation programme emphasises the importance of inclusion in education and the creation of a unified system from 0-25 years. It places new statutory requirements on local authorities (LAs) and FEIs but unhelpfully for stakeholders, the ALN Code fails to clarify what further education means for a young person with complex ALN and whether a stated two-year entitlement to education and training is a post-16 or a post-school right. Neither does it explain what it means by inclusion in education.
When learners are ready to leave special schools, the complexity of challenges some face means that mainstream settings can’t always provide the environment or expertise they need. To ensure equitable access to further education, different providers with the relevant specialisms are required. Colleges established specifically to meet the needs of learners with complex learning needs are essential to achieving an inclusive FE system. It follows that the principle of all learners being included in education by having access to the provision they need should trump a place-based interpretation of inclusion that all learners must be educated in the same setting.
LA officials require unambiguous guidance to make decisions within clear parameters. Without it, learners with low incidence and complex ALN are at the mercy of postcode lotteries as different LAs make different interpretations of the ALN Code.
Access to specialist FE colleges is further jeopardised by vastly different funding arrangements to learners at FEIs. As part of the reforms, Welsh Government are devolving funding for learners at specialist FE colleges to LA responsibility. As these learners often require funding deriving from different budgets, e.g. health, social services and education, it is likely that the loss of Welsh Government as the lead commissioner will result in disagreements between different LA budget holders. This could mean that transition planning is delayed, or worse still, some learners whose ALP is a specialist college are denied further education altogether.
Information and guidance
Following the Learning and Skills Act (2000), learners usually stay in special schools until they are 19 years old after which, Welsh Government have used what they call ‘discretionary powers’, to ensure equitable access to post-school further education and training. Transitions to further education providers have been navigated by dedicated Careers Wales Advisors. However, the ALN Code does not uphold that these discretionary powers should be maintained, and under the new arrangements Careers Wales Advisors will no longer have a statutory role in supporting these learners.
We are concerned that the loss of this significant expertise in transition processes will be detrimental to the sufficiency of post-school information and guidance. A system which implicitly incentivises LAs to not commission placements at specialist colleges may imperil the impartiality of any information and guidance.
Wales collects no destination data on learners leaving ILS programmes, and only limited information on the post-college destinations of young people who have attended specialist colleges. This means that the Lifelong Learning Wales Record (LLWR), the official source of statistics on post-16 learners in Wales, is devoid any data for this group of learners.
Welsh Government is reliant on specialist FE providers to deliver education and training to the small group of Wales learners who need them. It is disappointing that the newly created Commission for Tertiary Education and Research established to oversee all post compulsory education and training in Wales will not include oversight of specialist FE providers.
It is perverse that Welsh Government’s aspiration for a more equal Wales is being met with the continued categorisation of these learners and providers as ‘other’ for whom regulation, quality assurance, monitoring and research are not deemed to be on a par with other post-compulsory provision.
Being part of the solution
Natspec is pleased to be working with Colegau Cymru’s ILS Network supporting FEIs. We welcomed Welsh Government commissioning us to produce Wales-facing RARPA guidance aligned to the ALN Code and Estyn’s inspection framework. We want to build on the achievements of our project how partnership working across further education institutions and specialist further education colleges can benefit learners with additional learning needs.
These are proactive and positive steps towards improving outcomes. However, the inequities outlined above must be addressed. We are already aware of learners being excluded from further education altogether and being referred to social care settings straight from school.
We have urged the Children, Young People and Education Committee to use their inquiry to challenge Welsh Government. It is simply not acceptable to sit back and wait for the system to be tested by tribunals placing unwarranted pressure on learners, their families, and scant resources.
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