‘Sustainable and effective high needs systems should be a priority of local authority leadership,’ says Tony McCardle, Chair of the SEND System Leadership Board, in his introduction to new government guidance on reducing the deficit resulting from high needs spending. How could anyone disagree with that? The current situation is clearly unsustainable, with local authorities (LAs) everywhere finding themselves in the red as they struggle to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND.
The commentary and the case studies provide many useful suggestions to LAs, including the importance of strategic planning. But there is a glaring omission: where is the guidance on managing the rising costs of post-16 high needs provision, identified by the Local Government Association (LGA) as the single biggest pressure on their budgets?
While some of the suggested solutions for children and schools will apply to young people and colleges, many will be different for further education (FE). And whilst a couple of LAs involved in the case studies involved post-16 representatives in their planning, there is no recognition in the commentary about the very specific and different issues and solutions for school leavers and college students.
The guidance acknowledges the desperate need for ‘appropriate and thorough provision mapping’ to ensure suitable provision is available as children and young people move through the different stages of their education. We are pleased to see LAs being encouraged to undertake this exercise and to work with one another to plan provision. Cross boundary planning should be included: many FE students travel out of area to access provision to meet their needs and interests, and there is no reason why that shouldn’t be the case for students with SEND. Sub-regional or even regional solutions are likely to be a cost-effective way to meet the needs of young people with lower incidence SEN.
The guidance and case studies imply that provision mapping should result in filling gaps through providing new, local provision. But for FE, this knee-jerk response when an LA ‘suddenly’ finds a cohort of learners whom they are struggling to place, can sometimes result in exactly the opposite of a sustainable, cost-effective solution. Opening new post-16 settings is costly and the process involves a long paper trail of financial audits and quality checks, as a new specialist college has to be independent of the LA. The new provision remains unregulated and uninspected for several years until it is approved by ESFA and finally inspected by Ofsted. Often the new provision is very small, potentially limiting for the young people it should be serving as they move into adulthood.
Instead, we would like to work with LAs to help them become more adept at anticipating need and when gaps are identified, and suggest they first ask themselves:
Are there existing FE providers (general or specialist colleges) in this area or neighbouring areas with whom we could work to develop provision to meet anticipated need?
We also ask LAs not to confuse ‘independent’ and ‘out of area’. Most local areas will have one or more specialist colleges – defined by the DfE as ‘specialist post-16 institutions’ (SPIs) – on their patch. Any new provision, even those set up with the help of the LA, become independent SPIs. LAs should consider the potential contribution of all the different providers in the local and neighbouring area to the mix and balance of provision needed. This may also help identify where an out of area placement is merited.
And to provide for those young people with the most specialised needs, which would not be cost-effective for every LA to offer locally, the question might be:
Which types of highly specialist provision would it be more appropriate to plan regionally, and where might we access that?
Finally, we would re-iterate Tony McCardle’s advice that LAs should not wait for the long-delayed SEND Review to report before taking action.
Natspec has done this by working with the Association of Colleges to kickstart its own project to explore how joint working between specialist and general FE colleges might benefit young people with SEND. A variety of approaches will be tested out over the next nine months by 11 partnerships, including joint programmes, sub-contracting, co-location and sharing of expertise, facilities and resources.
We would urge local authorities to engage with these exciting projects where they are happening in their area. All local authorities could be asking themselves:
How might increased collaboration between different types of FE provider result in improved provision and greater cost-effectiveness?
We hope and expect that that some of the pilot partnership projects will lead not only to an improved offer for young people but to also more efficient use of funding.
The overarching message from the new guidance is the need for leadership and creative solutions. This is exactly what is needed across the board, and Natspec will continue to search for creative ways to support all organisations who work with those aged 16-25, as a contribution to the whole SEND system.
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