Over the summer, whilst sitting in multi-agency meetings talking about the government’s plan to “deliver a single national system that delivers consistently for every child and young person with SEND” I was reminded of that scene in ‘Finding Nemo’ when all the fish are caught in a net, desperate to escape, fighting furiously to get out.
The net we are caught in is a SEND system which has been described as “a treacle of bureaucracy”, with numerous reports bemoaning a lack of accountability, systemic failures in implementing the 2014 SEND reforms, financial unsustainability and an adversarial culture.
With a generation of children and young people suffering as a result, is there a way out of the net? With many different interests and organisations involved, and now a fifth minister in charge within the space of a couple of years, how do you begin to set a direction and lead meaningful change?
Nemo finds the answer by persuading all the fish to swim in the same direction to free themselves. And when it comes to the future of SEND in FE, I think there is real potential for the many different organisations involved to do the same – to agree on a vision and “swim together” to achieve it. We can start with some of the pilot local areas in the recently announced Change Programme.
To escape from our net and effect real change in these areas and beyond, firstly we need an agreed vision for all 16 to 25 year olds – regardless of where they are educated, supported by a single system for regulation and funding. Narrow interests or seeing things only from one perspective will not help us. That is why Natspec works closely with the Association of Colleges and other sector bodies, promoting the same messages regarding inclusion and financial reform for example. We are not solely concerned with our 120 specialist college members, despite our role as their membership body. Natspec has a genuine responsibility and concern for students with SEND across the whole of the FE sector; our role as one of the national SEND Centres for Excellence is one example of this, focussing on sharing specialist knowledge and expertise with mainstream providers.
Our agreed vision needs to be based on an inclusive FE system that works for every young person, with the vast majority being educated in mainstream FE: GFE and Sixth Form colleges, work based and adult learning providers who offer a breadth of learning programmes to a range of post-16 learners. We also need a mix and balance of provider types, with specialist FE providers supporting a minority of learners with more complex needs. Often the system is seen through a financial lens (for example in the Safety Valve agreements), with different types of providers illogically characterised, with some described as “costly” and others described as “local”, for example. We need a more nuanced discussion which takes the Improvement Plan’s aim of “right support, right place” seriously, recognising that this could be local specialist, local mainstream, regional specialist, regional mainstream, or anything in between, and costs will vary depending on a host of factors.
Linked to this, we need to bust some myths about specialist FE, specialist colleges and their place within this wider SEND system. DfE has made a commitment to ”reinforce the integrated position of specialist colleges within the wider FE sector” but too often there is an assumption that any provider that is not maintained by a LA, or part of a MAT, is somehow only contributing to spiralling costs, rather than contributing to high quality value for money outcomes for young people. Local partners and funders accept that special schools are an important partner in the system; we need to encourage the LAs involved in the Change Programme to understand that specialist colleges are similarly critical to an effective SEND system.
Natspec has submitted countless reports to government about how the system might be improved, but whilst national submissions do sometimes make a difference, real progress can only be made with a much wider network of leaders throughout the FE sector and in local authorities, acting as champions for young people as they leave school, progress through their FE programmes and move on to their post-college destinations. So it’s also important to encourage more people from different organisations to act as system leaders, supporting a vision of inclusive FE, better strategic planning, more effective use of resources, and partnerships between providers.
That’s why we launched our SEND leadership programme nearly three years ago, where we work with SEND professionals to help them understand, believe in and use their influence and networks – talking openly and honestly about challenges, getting to know the people behind the policies, and being open and curious about solutions. We included within the programme a challenge to every participant (over 100 SEND professionals so far) to play their part in “leading the sector” as well as leading their own organisations. By “the sector” we mean specialist FE, which is all types of specialist provision, whether that be stand-alone specialist colleges, specialist units or departments within general FE, or provision for adults with learning disabilities as part of LA community learning.
Finally, we need a commitment to address post-school issues through real understanding of the context of FE and how it differs from schools. Natspec and AoC will be offering the partners involved in the Change Programme some resources including key data sources, prompt self-review questions, and sample objectives with suggested metrics to build into local area inclusion plans. We want to give local areas genuine support to understand supply, demand and capacity of provision in order to support better planning and more effective use of resources.
As we start another academic year, the SEND system net is getting tighter. It’s urgent that we all start to swim together now, push hard to escape and improve lives for thousands of young people and their families.
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