By Clare Howard, CEO of Natspec.
The FE landscape is a complicated one. It’s difficult for all students to navigate, but for those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) the complexities are mind boggling. Students with SEND and their families need to make decisions not only about courses and locations, but also whether or not their place will be funded and if they will access all the additional expertise, resources and learning support they need.
How do we make the system more inclusive and ensure that all students with SEND access “the right support, in the right place, at the right time”? This of course is the title of the government’s SEND and AP Green Paper, but we are a long way off achieving that vision.
At Natspec, we believe that all young people with learning difficulties and disabilities should be able to access high quality post-school education and training which meets their individual needs and supports their aspirations for skills, work and life. This should apply across the spectrum of need, to those with the most complex learning needs. Further education should support all young people to gain the knowledge, skills and behaviours that will enable them to lead successful adult lives. It should also prepare them to take up their rightful place in society as active citizens.
So how do we make sure that students with the most complex needs feel included? What does a fully inclusive FE system look like?
There is an ever-growing demand for FE places for students with SEND, who make up over 20% of all students. There are over 130,000 16- to 25-year-olds with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) – 28% of the total – and over 80,000 of these are placed in FE settings (with the remainder largely in special school 6th forms). The vast majority of these learners should achieve their goals and aspirations at a GFE college or other mainstream setting. But a small minority may require a specialist FE provider to enable them to lead successful adult lives.
A fully inclusive system therefore requires an appropriate mix and balance of provider types to meet the needs of all learners, to the highest quality standards. It requires providers of different types with various specialisms to come together and share knowledge, design joint programmes, and explore different ways of helping young people achieve their aspirations.
Natspec and the Association of Colleges have been working on a project to support mainstream and specialist colleges explore different ways of partnership working, to extend or enrich opportunities for young people, to support inclusion, to help learners progress and access opportunities at both types of college, and to share staff knowledge and training.
However, despite the learning from the project and the exciting work that is continuing into 2022/23, we know that there are many barriers to overcome. The high needs funding system, the vagaries of local authority commissioning processes, and internal challenges for providers such as staffing and ensuring quality, all impede the development of a fully inclusive FE system. The Green Paper did not provide any detail on the causes of some of these challenges facing FE, so we now need to lobby for a focus on FE and the changes required.
We need to break down the current binary system whereby a young person is placed in either a mainstream or a specialist setting. We need equality of access to FE, with decisions about placements based on the learner’s needs, including the type of curriculum and learning environment that will help them progress. More funders and stakeholders need to recognise that some learners may require the expertise of both specialist and mainstream settings. Mainstream settings require more resources to increase their capacity to meet a wider range of learning needs; specialist settings need to be recognised as a key part of the system to provide for those with more complex needs and offer specialist training and services to other providers. Above all, we should listen to the learners and ensure their views help shape the system, because inclusion is impossible if learners don’t feel included.
For more information visit Natspec.org.uk and follow @Natspec & @ClareHNatspec. Clare will be exploring this topic further at our Further Education SEND Conference, on 20th September.