The voice of specialist further education

Setting up a new Specialist College

This guidance is for organisations that

  • are considering opening a new specialist college for post-16 or post-19 students with SEND
  • have recently opened a new specialist college and are now planning to seek approval for funding by the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

The guidance primarily applies to England, but the information on the principles for new provision and how to ensure quality are relevant across the UK.

Table of contents


In England, the Department for Education refers to specialist FE colleges as ‘specialist post-16 institutions (SPIs’). At Natspec we prefer ‘specialist FE colleges’ or ‘specialist provider’.

Organisations in this position typically include:

  1. Special schools / academies establishing separate colleges to extend provision to post-16 and post-19.
  2. Community Interest Companies / social enterprises previously funded by LAs.
  3. Charities offering day care, diversifying into education and applying for post 19 funding for students who previously accessed social care.
  4. Independent Learning Providers (ILPs), including those offering vocational qualifications up to Level 2 and apprenticeships, expanding to include SEND students working at different levels.
  5. Local authority adult education centres offering distinct high needs provision, becoming independent of the LA to be directly funded by ESFA as a new SPI.
  6. Private companies or employers offering education, sometimes for the first time.

Natspec understands the importance of having a diverse range of specialist post-16 providers and, where the provision is being set up in a way that is consistent with the principles below, is happy to support organisations entering the market, .

We highly recommend our Specialist FE Essential Information course to anyone considering opening a new specialist FE setting. You are also welcome to browse our resources pages where you will be able to find out more about topics such as the funding system and data requirements that apply to specialist FE colleges.

Principles underpinning new specialist colleges

The principles we advocate relating to new specialist colleges are:

  1. New providers should only open where a need has been established, following a comprehensive supply and demand analysis and the optimum number of specialist FE providers and their geographical spread have been carefully considered. In some cases, a full options appraisal might conclude that while new or additional provision is needed, this can be met by existing GFE or specialist colleges including through establishing satellites or partnerships.
  2. New providers should open to fill gaps rather than duplicate what is on offer in existing colleges unless demand is outstripping supply, and growth within existing colleges is not an option.
  3. New providers should be established, managed and led by a team with a full understanding of FE in terms of its approach, its culture, leadership and governance.
  4. A new providers’ offer should be age-appropriate and of high quality. The curriculum should be designed to prepare young people for adulthood and focussed on enabling them to achieve their desired outcomes for adult life.
  5. There should be a marked difference between the new specialist FE college and a school or care setting in terms of ethos, mind-set amongst leaders, practitioners, governors, and in policies, procedures, attitude, aspiration and sense of purpose. Moving to college (sometimes after 15+ years at the same school) should be a marked transition in a young person’s life, helping to prepare them for adult life.

The ESFA due diligence process

In England, to be eligible for funding from the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), organisations setting up new provision for high needs students aged over 16 must go through the due diligence process.

To be eligible for funding and start the process, organisations need to have been established to educate and train students aged 16+ and/or 19+ with Education, Health and Care Plans, and to meet these requirements:

  • the institution has been included within their provider LA high needs place change notification workbook for 10 or more places. The provider LA is the LA in whose area the institution is located;
  • the institution has been or will be named in an Education Health and Care (EHC) plan for 10 or more high needs students;
  • the institution has actively traded for a minimum of 3 months and is able to supply management accounts for that period.

There are 3 stages to the due diligence process:

  • Stage 1 – legal status and background information, and LA confirmation of placements and reason for seeking direct ESFA funding for institution, including why provision isn’t available elsewhere if the institution is new
  • Stage 2 – financial health assessment
  • Stage 3 – quality of provision.

A new set of guidance and forms is published in October each year. Organisations complete the due diligence process by the spring of the following year, and if successful, will receive an ESFA contract in August for the approaching academic year.

The Children and Families Act ‘Section 41’ approved list

New providers can also apply to become part of the Section 41 list of approved institutions.

Being on the list means that a provider is subject to the same legal duties from the Children and Families Act 2014 as maintained schools, academies, non-maintained special schools and FE colleges including:

  • local authorities’ published local offer of support available to children and young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN) must refer to all organisations on the approved list
  • once on the approved list, your organisation will have a reciprocal duty to co-operate with the local authority on arrangements for children and young people with SEN, and must also have regard to the statutory guidance in the SEND code of practice
  • if your organisation is named on an EHC plan, you must admit the student
  • if an EHC plan names an institution that is on the list, the LA must comply with the request unless certain circumstances apply.

There is an online application form to complete to become approved. Providers do not have to be on the Section 41 list but many choose to be, not least because some local authorities will not fund organisations until they are on the approved list.

Quality of provision

New specialist colleges need to focus right from the start on the quality of their provision, most importantly to ensure learners get the education, training and support they need. Also, the quality of  provision will swiftly come under the scrutiny of ESFA and Ofsted.

As part of the due diligence process ESFA will consider whether:

  • staff are suitably qualified to undertake the role for which they are employed
  • satisfactory plans are in place for ensuring that the provision will be distinctively post-16 in nature and that this is reflected in the proposed curriculum and study programmes
  • facilities are appropriate for the age group
  • appropriate internal policies are in place
  • appropriate governance arrangements are in place.

Ofsted conducts a first monitoring visit to new specialist colleges within two years of their being approved by ESFA. They focus on three questions:

  • How much progress have leaders and managers made in designing and delivering relevant learning programmes that are clearly defined and tailored to suit the individual needs of learners?
  • How much progress have leaders and managers made to ensure that learners benefit from high quality learning programmes that develop independence, communication and skills and help them to achieve their personal and/or work-related goals
  • How much progress have leaders and managers made in ensuring that effective safeguarding arrangements are in place?

Further information on inspection, governance and curriculum can be found on our resources pages, including a log of recent inspections and (for members only) a termly analysis of recent inspection report on the quality page. Natspec members can also download a set of self assessment questions on all aspects of quality below.

 Quality issues and self assessment questions for specialist post16 provision

The challenges of opening a new specialist college

Many people from organisations setting up new specialist FE colleges have been surprised at how much they have had to change or introduce as a result of becoming a college funded by the ESFA and subject to Ofsted inspections.

The comments below from organisations that have gone through the process demonstrate some of the most common misconceptions

Culture: under-estimating the cultural change required of governors, leaders, and staff, for example –

“Becoming a college changed our whole perspective and culture.”

“Changing the culture from a school to a college one was critical”

“The enormity of what we were taking on was completely lost on us”

Curriculum: moving from a school-based to an adult/FE curriculum, for example –

“Having always provided accredited qualifications I was not familiar with using RARPA …”

“We didn’t realise how much we’d have to change our curriculum and way of working”

Funding: realising that the funding system for FE is different from schools and social care, for example –

“We had no idea about the different funding and reporting procedures, and the steep learning curve regarding the ILR and FE contractual requirements”

“We thought if we were a college we’d have much more money. We were completely wrong”

“We did not realise how much our costs would increase to cover the additional responsibilities required of running a college”

“Learning about a whole new funding system and new funding regulations was daunting”

Safeguarding: understanding funding and statutory requirements, and the differences between 16+ and 18+, for example –

“We were completely confident about safeguarding procedures in the school. For the college, we needed a whole new approach”

“It took us far too long to understand which factors were statutory requirements and which were down to local decision making”

“Interpreting national guidance and creating new policies for adult safeguarding was a big piece of work”

There are some specific challenges for colleges emerging from schools in establishing a separate identity as an FE provider. Senior leaders from schools have sometimes underestimated the scale of the difference between school and college provision.

The list of differences below has been compiled by leaders of specialist colleges which are linked to schools.

  • Culture and terminology: it is important to create a culture of adult-focussed education and a separation from the school including a different atmosphere and environment, and to use the language of FE rather than schools e.g. pupil / student; child / young person;
  • Staffing: teaching assistants in school play a different role from learning support assistants in colleges.
  • Curriculum: there must be a much stronger adult focus to a college curriculum ; qualifications may play a much less significant role than in school with much more use of non-accredited provision ; personalisation of the curriculum is an expectation for college students.
  • Funding and finance: specialist colleges are not eligible for all the same funding streams; the high needs funding system is different. The specialist college is required to be financially independent of the school and sustainable in itself, which requires business and financial expertise.
  • Pensions/ pay: specialist colleges are not tied to the same pay scales or pension arrangements, which can affect recruitment and/or staff morale.
  • Facilities: if the college is on the same site, there is a balance to make between ensuring a clear separation of adults and children and sharing specialist facilities to create economies of scale.
  • Governance: governors must understand FE provision and there should be a separate college governing body including new governors with FE knowledge and experience.
  • Safeguarding: risk assessments, consent and safeguarding arrangements are different for adults, and staff need to be aware of how policies should be drawn up.
  • Reporting: staff will need to learn how to use the Individualised Learner Record (ILR) rather than the school census. Attendance data and reporting is not the same for colleges.

You can hear more from colleagues who have been through the experience of opening a new specialist FE college by signing up for our Specialist FE Essential Information course.

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