Interview - Alison Boulton

Specialist colleges rely on highly trained, professional teachers delivering education that helps learners to lead independent lives. But Natspec’s Alison Boulton fears short-sighted ‘care and contain’ approaches may undermine education for independence. Interview by Ian Nash

Alison Boulton is used to arguing for the rights of individuals to a good solid education. As chief executive of Natspec, the Association of National Specialist Colleges, she has had to fight harder than most in the education service – often for the most severely disabled and disadvantaged students.

Her latest campaign is to convince the House of Lords’ Grand Committee that 18-year-olds with severe learning difficulties should have continuing access to learning until they are ready to make the transition to adulthood, which for some students might be at age 25.

The current wording of the Children and Families Bill – to replace special needs statementing with Education Health and Care (EHC) plans – could create a loophole for cash-strapped local authorities to end access at 18.

Special needs education demands the most exacting teaching skills and yet even here Boulton has had to press repeatedly for improvements because, too often, local authorities see the service as one of containment and care before education for employment and independent living.

Boulton makes it clear that wellresourced provision of initial teacher training and CPD for specialist colleges in Natspec membership is a priority. “It is one of the most challenging areas of teaching a person can enter,” she says. “It is detailed tuition and support for learning and self-discovery towards greater independence.”

A significant issue facing specialist colleges is that politicians have never decided quite where they fit in. For example, they were never subject to the Further Education Teachers’ Qualifications (England) Regulations2007, revoked by government in September, which required those teaching in mainstream FE to hold or be working towards a teaching qualification.

“We have never been subject to the same regulations as other providers. And with all the reforms and changes in regulations it has never been quite clear which policies apply and which don’t,” says Boulton.

For all that, specialist colleges have been at the forefront of reforms, providing expertise and CPD support to other sectors. Ironically, as specialist colleges help staff working in general FE settings to gain the skills needed to widen their student intakes, the challenges get tougher for specialists themselves.

“Over the past few years, Natspec providers have seen a change in their student group towards those with increasingly complex needs as general FE colleges take a wider group of learners,” she says.

If this provision and the attendant teacher training and development are expensive, Natspec is amassing evidence that shows the alternatives to be even more costly. A National Audit Office report, Oversight of special education for young people aged 16-25, in 2011 gave strong support when it concluded: “Giving the correct support to young people with special needs could help them lead more independent lives in the future and reduce longer-term costs to the public purse.”

In 2012, a study by accountancy firm Baker Tilly, commissioned by the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools (NASS), said special school provision was cheaper than equivalent local authority provision for students with complex special educational needs. They suggested UKwide annual savings of over £600 million by this route.

Baker Tilley, working with two specialist colleges, Coventry’s Hereward and Lincolnshire’s Linkage, further suggested colleges nationally could be saving the taxpayer up to £120 million over the lifetime of each annual intake of learners.

However, Boulton is not complacent and says it’s important to look at the relative costs of social care and education for independence. “You can never be absolutely sure what level of independence someone might achieve given different settings, and it is morally impossible to have a control group.”

So, she commissioned qualitative value-for-money work from independent consultant Sally Faraday, which backs the NAO conclusions. Moreover, case study evidence to the Lords’ Grand Committee demonstrates the importance of continuing access to learning (as opposed to just care) beyond 18.

Boulton highlights a typical case study – that of Ben who has cerebral palsy. After gaining six GCSEs and an A/S level at school, he became a resident at National Star College at 19 where a team provided him with aids including wheelchair modifications, laptop with foot-controlled switch and head-switch to open doors or switch on the TV to help him to take control of his environment. After gaining a BTEC level 2 in sport, he discovered boccia (a precision ball sport, similar to bowls), joined Great Britain’s Paralympic team and now runs a club in Gloucestershire, living relatively independently.

Specialist colleges are at the leading edge of developments in assistive technologies and in helping learners access and adopt these technologies, says Boulton. But the Children and Families bill raises serious questions over the future funding of the work of specialist colleges. In October, Natspec and more than 100 other national organisations signed an open letter to David Cameron and Nick Clegg seeking substantial improvements to the bill.

“A number of things muddy the water,” says Boulton. “Some 150 local authorities and 65 specialist colleges (and all the general FE colleges) are trying to make sense of a new funding system with inadequate guidance so far. We are still waiting for news about SEN grants for CPD and funding for the specialist SEN qualifications.”

The challenge, says Boulton, is for good colleges to maintain their core levels of expertise. “In tough financial times, colleges may feel they have to focus on their required areas of training – safeguarding, health and safety, first aid – so other areas may suffer,” she says. “But good and outstanding colleges will be doing all they can to ensure they keep a fully trained workforce – we know that colleges that fail to keep staff up to date with new demands, mostly due to more complex student needs, often struggle during inspections.”

This cannot be gained by osmosis, but requires qualified teachers with CPD, she says: “It helps if you have a framework to understand what it is you are doing to promote learning and how you can continue to improve your practice.” Evidence for this is emerging from the latest work from Sally Faraday, which shows convincingly the differences between a teaching context where the primary purpose is learning and a focus on care alone.

“In care, your job is to make sure the individual is well cared for rather than about promoting learning and independence. Therefore the question is what skills teachers need in order to do their job,” Boulton says. “You need to be clear about the objectives and appropriate approach; some learners need hundreds of tiny steps and experiential processes. You need to be able to respond to what learners are doing. Have they got it or not? You need the ability to push them on.” Ian Nash is an education journalist and author who co-owns Nash & Jones Partnership.

Ian Nash is an education journalist and author who co-owns Nash & Jones Partnership Media Consultancy

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