Equality in education – the challenges of FE SEND provision

Emma Sanderson, Managing Director, Options Autism, a specialist provider of education and care for autistic children, young people and adults and those with complex needs, discusses the challenges to equality in education for young people with SEND, and the implications for FE provision in the Government’s SEND Review

Young people with special, educational needs (SEN) are 25% less likely to be in sustained employment at age 27 than their peers, and more likely destined to become long-term NEET (not in education, employment or training). The Government’s recent SEND Review; ‘Right support, right place, right time’ which aims to improve outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and those in alternative provision, should be welcomed, but we must see positive results for the young people who are not presently afforded the same choices as their neurotypical peers. We need equality in further education (FE) and higher education (HE).

Progression rates for our young people with SEND, lag well behind other nineteen year olds. According to the latest Government figures, in 2021/22 just 18% of young people with learning disabilities and/or disabilities (LLDD) participated in Further Education or Skills Training.1 In Higher Education (HE) the numbers are even lower, with just 8.7% of young people with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or Statement of SEN, progressing to HE by age19, compared to 22.5% on SEN support and 48.6% for those with no SEN.2

Although the number of students with SEND, being educated in mainstream FE settings is rising rapidly, with local authority data reporting an 11.5% increase, from 46,786 students in 2019, to 52,168 in 2020, there is still a continuing role for specialist college provision.

The number of young people currently educated in specialist FE colleges has hardly changed for the last 5 years. Approximately 6,000 students are catered for by 133 specialist colleges, of which 113 were funded by Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) in 2020/21.

While both specialist and mainstream colleges provide programmes of learning designed to meet the needs of students with SEND; specialist colleges work with those with more complex needs, which cannot be effectively resourced in mainstream provision. These students require multi-disciplinary specialist input and expertise, and would struggle in a busy mainstream environment.

If specialist colleges are to continue to provide this crucial role in a future SEND system, the Government’s recent SEND Review must also address current challenges, including:

  • Misperceptions and misinterpretations about the nature and status of specialist colleges, which results in some local authorities (LAs) not considering them an option alongside schools or colleges as potential providers. Specialist colleges tend to be perceived as ‘private’, and excluded from the Local Offer or from discussions between LAs and other providers.

It is important that those involved in SEND and high needs funding, recognise that both mainstream colleges and specialist colleges are independent of local authority control in terms of the SEND system.

  • Specialist colleges are sometimes perceived as a last resort. Placements are made following disputes or appeals, rather than being recognised as the appropriate provision for the young people who require it, and planned in a timely manner. The statutory deadline of 31 March is routinely missed for the majority of learners coming into specialist colleges.
  • A change in perception is also more likely to be achieved if the DfE, ESFA and LAs used the term ‘specialist college’ alongside ‘mainstream college’, rather than the confusing multitude of terms which can be misleading, such as: independent specialist provider (ISP), independent specialist college (ISC) and specialist post16 institution (SPI).
  • As part of a future vision, specialist colleges should be positioned as an integral part of the FE sector, with a clear set of policies for mainstream and special schools, and a separate set of distinct policies for mainstream and specialist FE.

Although the DfE’s consultation highlights the poorer outcomes young people achieve in alternative provision and those with SEND throughout their education, it does not contain any recognition of the needs of young people, nor any explicit support for FE. In 2019/20 only 55% of young people in alternative provision sustained their post-16 destination for longer than six months.

There are positives in the review: the ambition to apply coherent standards to alternative provision; local inclusion plans to be overseen by the DfE; and banded price tariffs for high needs. But the proposals miss an opportunity to improve the way funding is fairly and properly allocated for students, particularly those whose needs are real but less pronounced – often the case with young people with a diagnosis of autism.

Of the £2.2 billion increase in high needs funding in 2020/21 compared to 2014/15, only £175 million went on post-16 provision.

Without the chance to fulfil their potential and aspirations, access the quality of life and satisfaction that comes with working, and giving back and feeling part of their community, there is an increased risk these young people will become isolated, with all the accompanying mental health challenges, anxiety and depression.

For autistic young people, who have experienced the security that a structured school day provides, life without a routine and purpose is very challenging. Let’s ensure we give every young person the opportunity to pursue further learning.