Fog descends on Further Education and SEND

13th January 2017

A wintry fog has descended over the landscape of further and adult education for learners with SEND. The DfE has given itself a conundrum over post-19 education and training for learners with disabilities. The Children & Families Act 2014 replaced the old “Statements of Special Educational Needs” with “Education, Health & Care Plans” (EHCPs) and extended the age limit for eligibility from 18 to 25. This gave long-overdue recognition to the profound challenges faced by those with additional needs entering adulthood. But Tania Tirraoro, whose Special Needs Jungle website monitors progress on SEND reforms portrayed this landmark reform of our special education system as storm-tossed and in peril.

Previously, only a small number of young adults would have received special educational support comparable with what can now be sought through the Local Authority and, if necessary, through the courts.

On average, 22,245 children and young people have a Statement or EHCP in each cohort of secondary school. Between 16 and 19, this drops to 13,767. An assumption seems to have been made that this fall would continue and would be replicated when EHCPs were introduced up to age 25.

Yet this is the equivalent of ignoring an impending storm, oblivious to the weatherman’s warnings. I have parents coming to me asking for help to get their 22/23 year old’s disability assessed so that they can receive appropriate specialist education; something I strongly support. Nonetheless, as the law becomes better known, and social care packages shrivel to hoar frost in the bitter climate of council cuts, these new rights will be used increasingly frequently. Furthermore, parents, carers and young adults have the right to appeal to the First-Tier SEND Tribunal if they are refused assessment or provision. This is resulting in some emerging case law from the Upper Tribunal where decisions from the First Tier Tribunal are challenged.

Increased uptake could add anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 new individual Plans in England, each costing anywhere between £10,000 and £100,000 per annum depending on the nature of the learner’s disability. Some of the cost could be transferred from adult care budgets but the total national bill could be an additional half a billion pounds a year. Coincidentally, this is the same figure the DfE spent on introducing the SEND reforms between 2014 and 2016. Whilst those 2014-16 figures were written off as a one-off cost, it may turn out to be an annual fixture.

One of the tactics already deployed by LAs (besides the legal tactics for which they were so bitterly criticised last year) is to insist parents find a local course or training environment which would be ideal for their son or daughter, otherwise… no assessment. This is not the law and it’s discriminatory. LAs have a responsibility to ensure provision meets needs but if they will then bear the cost of commissioning this provision, they have no incentive to ensure it exists. Yet experience suggests that, once an entitlement is established in law, demand will quickly drive provision. In the face of these pressures, it is unthinkable that LAs will be able to dodge the bullet. Special educational needs spending for 18-25 year olds must therefore rise and rise quickly. No barrister, however sharp, can shovel this much snow.

As if this wasn’t a tough enough challenge, this is all taking place in the context of a Further Education sector facing a prolonged winter of financial storms as funding is frozen until Brussels breathes warm air over the government’s new and as yet unregulated procurement process. This is education’s equivalent of “the wrong kind of snow”.

Funding for FE is a Jenga-style top-heavy puzzle fit for a winter’s afternoon by the fire. The funding formula measures the volume of delivery through student numbers taken from the previous year combined with the size of their learning programme as measured the year before that. As my late father would say, they probably invented it when there was no television and the evenings were long.

The extent of the challenge is set out in a needs analysis for the Education & Training Foundation which highlighted the FE and skills sectors’ serious failings of the in meeting 16-19 year olds’ needs.

The DfE has been left clutching at straws in response. Last week School Standards Minister Nick Gibb, already under intense pressure on the national school funding formula, was left reaching for figures which really don’t help his case:

“In recent years we have had to make some post-16 savings while working hard to sustain funding levels for schools…But we have also made clear commitments to 16 to 19 education, where we have protected the base rate of funding of £4,000 per student for all types of provider until 2020.”

In fact, this is 13% less than the current average spend on each learner and 20% less than their younger siblings in secondary school. Cold comfort, then.

This blizzard of planning errors, conflicting projects, incoherent regulation and suppressed disability rights will take years to clear.