Natspec’s Policy Officer Ruth Perry shares her take on the conversation about post-19 education provision for learners with SEND.
There’s always more to learn.
‘We’re always learning,’ a highly experienced college principal said to me the other day. It’s certainly true for me in my job role as the policy officer at Natspec. The external world keeps on changing: there are new initiatives, new funding arrangements, new inspection frameworks for me to get my head around. Colleagues ask questions which require me to do some digging around before I can find the answer. There are new research reports to read. I’m constantly meeting people with different experiences and perspectives who deepen my understanding of things I thought I already knew.
If I am always learning because of the challenges and the stimulation that come with my job, the same is true for learners in our member colleges, all of whom have special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). Throughout their time at college, they are challenged, encouraged and stimulated to keep learning, even when progress is slow, and the process is fraught with difficulty. What they learn can have a considerable impact on their future lives: it might open the possibility of employment, further or higher education, or the chance to live in their own home; it may mean that they can have an active social life and participate in their communities; it will almost certainly result in them having greater agency in their own lives.
Extending opportunities for learning is something to celebrate – but is it really happening?
So, it’s frustrating when we hear of cases where a local authority has decided that a young person, having reached the age of 19, will derive no further benefit from education. At Natspec, we were delighted that the SEND reforms embraced children and young people from 0 – 25. We recognised that it wouldn’t be sensible or desirable for all, or perhaps most, young people with an Education Health and Care Plan (EHC) to stay in education until they were 25. But young people having the option to keep learning – and be funded to do so – for an additional period beyond the age of 18, as appropriate to the individual, was something to celebrate.
In practice, it doesn’t seem to be working that way. There is currently huge inconsistency in decisions made about whether to cease an EHC Plan once a young person turns 19. The law requires local authorities to ‘have regard to whether the educational or training outcomes specified in the plan have been achieved’’, before deciding to cease to maintain a plan. Some local authorities are interpreting ‘educational or training outcomes’ as only those relating to formal qualifications or leading directly to paid employment – unlawfully according to IPSEA, the charity which provides free legal advice on SEND issues.
What do we mean by ‘educational outcomes’?
Young people whose learning programmes are focused on independent living skills, communication and self-advocacy, on improving their ability to maintain good health or to develop relationships, and/or to make an active contribution to their community in a volunteer role are often denied the opportunity to reach their potential. Sometimes the educational outcomes in a young person’s plan lack ambition or aspiration, so that after a year of further education, the outcomes have already been achieved and, despite the young person’s capacity to progress further, the guillotine comes down. All of this can seem especially unfair when two learners on the same course, each with very similar needs and each making steady progress, are treated differently because of the policies or practices of their home local authorities.
Decisions are being based on cost, rather than young people’s needs.
The shortfall in high needs funding seems to be biting particularly for the post-19 age group. Several local authorities have consulted in recent months on how best to manage the limited budget so that it is spent fairly; reducing funding for post-19 provision has been posed as an option in these consultations. It isn’t surprising that local authorities have identified post-19 provision as a ‘problem area’. Until the SEND reforms came in, local authorities had no responsibility for post-19 learners. Suddenly they have a whole new cohort of young people who are entitled to additional support – but no significant increase in funding. In fact, there doesn’t appear to have been any national costing exercise to identify the funding needed to match the increase in young people entitled to support. How are local authorities supposed to cope? Inevitably, they are making cost-driven decisions rather than decisions based on the needs of young people.
Sufficient funds must be made available if the ambitions of the SEND reforms are to become an actuality.
In an ideal world, there would be funding for all of us to engage in lifelong learning, but that’s clearly not practical. The government must make decisions about how public money is spent and where funding priorities lie. In introducing the Children and Families Act, they made a commitment to fund continuing education and training for young people with an EHC plan beyond the age of 18 where they needed additional time to achieve their goals. We now need to see that happening in practice. That means all parties having a shared understanding that educational and training outcomes can be wide-ranging and inclusive of learning relating to all four of the preparing for adulthood pathways (not just employment) and that those outcomes should always be ambitious. Crucially, it also means the government committing sufficient funds to the high needs pot to ensure that all young people who are entitled to continue education have access to it.