SEND students face anxious wait over funding for places at specialist colleges
The fight for those with disabilities to receive FE financial support
ALICIA JACKSON is excited about starting college in September. The visually impaired 19-year-old has more reason than most to look forward to commencing her studies at the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC): this is the culmination of a two-and-a-halfyear battle to obtain funding from her local authority, which resulted in her spending a year out of education. “I just wanted to learn – and they wouldn’t let me,” she says.
Jackson is far from alone. National specialist colleges across England say that the move to put local authorities in charge of special educational needs and disability funding has resulted in countless delays and disputes, as the families of young people, some with the most severe physical and learning disabilities, try to persuade cash-strapped authorities to pay for them to attend (see box, below).
The SEND Code of Practice says that 31 March is the deadline for decisions to be made for students transferring from secondary school to a specialist college; the transfer of students between post-16 institutions should “normally” be finalised by the same date.
But according to Natspec, the membership body for specialist colleges, this deadline is regularly missed. It emerged at Natspec’s regional meetings during June and July that just one in 10 places at member colleges had been confirmed. And this week, less than a month from the start of term, one college told Tes that it was still waiting for 53 per cent of its intake for 2017-18 to be finalised.
For Jackson, the long wait for her funding to be approved was “really upsetting”. And for the colleges concerned, the prolonged period of uncertainty poses difficulties for budgeting, staffing and planning.
“We have to plan the curriculum and timetables, and have the systems in place for each individual learner,” explains RNC principal Mark Fisher. “That means our planning goes right to the wire.” The fact that many students live on the college’s Hereford campus makes the situation difficult enough, without the added pressure caused by late funding decisions, he adds.
Of the 93 students that the college expects in September, around a quarter were this week still awaiting a decision from their local authority.
Chief executive Lucy Proctor explains that many students have to be “rebuilt” once they arrive. “If someone has been Neet [not in education, employment or training] for a year unnecessarily, you need extra time,” she adds. “People should not have to spend their life savings on a solicitor to battle for the right place for their child.”
However, Natspec chief executive Clare Howard has some sympathy with local authorities. “They are compromised: they have a statutory obligation to assess young people with SEND, write Education Health and Care Plans [EHCPS], and then commission provision from a limited pot of funding.
“There is silo-thinking in terms of budgets, and a lack of recognition that investing in the education of young people with SEND increases their chances of gaining employment and their capacity for independence later, thus reducing their future need for support and their reliance on adult services and the benefits system.”
At Ambitious College, a day college in London for young people with autism and complex needs, the places of just eight learners out of 60 had been confirmed by the 31 March deadline. It was finalising arrangements with 16 different authorities.
Not knowing how many students the college will enrol causes significant difficulties, says principal Viv Berkeley. “We have to businessplan – we cannot carry staff we don’t have students for,” she explains.
Ring-fencing funding for students needing specialist further education would “help enormously”, she adds.
Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’S children and young people board, says that while councils are “working hard” to support students, they are also having to cope with “implementing a complex set of reforms which have been set by government at a time of limited resources and rising demand”.
“We were clear from the outset that the SEND reforms in the Children and Families Bill were significantly underfunded and that more needed to be done to ensure funding was made available,” he adds.