SEND plays a pivotal role in improving the prospects and life chances of learners. It’s also an area facing significant change on the back of the government’s review. David Adams examines a sector facing a period of upheaval.
This article was originally published in the autumn 2022 edition of InTuition journal, the full contents of which are available to SET Members. Learn more.
Young people and adults with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) make up approximately one-quarter of all college learners, according to figures from the Association of Colleges (AoC). Many attend specialist SEND further education (FE) colleges, while others attend general and other FE colleges, such as land colleges.
Yet more will form part of the adult or community learning sector.
“Supporting SEND learners is a huge part of the work of all FE colleges,” says David Holloway, senior policy manager for SEND at the AoC. It is also often very successful. “I often hear of students who left school with no qualifications and problematic behaviour, but when they are treated differently in an FE college that can be enough to allow them to succeed.”
That record of success was disrupted by the pandemic. Some SEND learners had to shield at home for months; some were unable to use online learning technologies. But specialist and general FE colleges continued to deliver face-to-face learning and support to at least some and, as restrictions allowed, eventually to all SEND learners.
“On the whole, the sector coped admirably,” says Ruth Perry, senior policy manager at Natspec, the membership association for organisations offering specialist FE to SEND learners. But she also notes that some learners lost confidence, practical and social skills, or even physical capabilities during the long periods they could not attend college.
Joanne Rees-Proud, principal at Hedleys College, near Newcastle, which has about 80 students with a wide variety of different needs, says staff recruitment and sickness also created problems. “We had to use more agency staff than ever before. Sometimes we had to ask students to stay at home because we couldn’t get staff to meet their needs,” she explains.
This is a sector where people are prepared to learn from one another and from their students
It is clear that the current system that is supposed to enable colleges to meet the needs of these learners is in urgent need of reform. In March 2022 the Department for Education published its long-delayed SEND Review Green Paper, Right support, right place, right time.
There were some useful proposals outlined in the document, but it was overwhelmingly focused on schools – FE was barely mentioned. “We welcome standardising education, health and care plans,” says Teresa Carroll, national head for inclusion at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF). “We would like a system that offers more inclusive education within the mainstream. But we’re disappointed that [the Green Paper lacked] recognition of the FE system.”
Natspec also welcomed some proposals, but was disappointed by the lack of focus on FE and specialist provision, a lack of capital funding for colleges linked to SEND, and a lack of further investment either in post-education support for learners, or in FE staff. “It was really disappointing,” says Perry.
“Every local authority should have a plan for where it can place learners with the full range of needs for provision, post-16,” she says. “That may mean drawing on regional provision. Some learners will need a specialist college place and that should be included in strategic planning, rather than families having to go through a tribunal to get that provision.”
While a route into work is not always an end goal, many SEND learners would benefit from policies that might increase opportunities to find paid employment. In June 2022, the ETF published a report aimed at employers: Why diversifying your workforce is good for business, based on the experiences of employers who provided work experience and paid employment to young people with SEND.
Landmarks College, based near Sheffield, is a SEND specialist college with a major focus on helping some learners find paid employment. Employer partners include the brewery Greene King, through which some learners complete internships and may be offered a job at the end.
We welcome standardising education, health and care plans. But we’re disappointed that the Green Paper lacked recognition of the FE system
But Landmarks principal and CEO Larry Brocklesby acknowledges that some learners will not end up in paid work. Some may be discouraged from accepting a job offer because it could mean their family loses benefits upon which it depends. “A way of removing that cliff-edge would help,” he says. The current system can create barriers, agrees Carroll, and can make young people and their families fearful of change.
Other sector-led initiatives could also help SEND learners and the colleges they attend. The ETF has co-ordinated the creation of three national Centres for Excellence in SEND to offer expert support to FE organisations’ leaders, managers and practitioners. They are at Weston College in Somerset, where the key focus is inclusive teaching and learning being everybody’s business and looking after the mental, social and emotional needs of staff and learners; Derby College, which focuses on a curriculum with a clear purpose for SEND learners; and City College Norwich, where the focus is on SEND learners being present within communities that recognise and embrace their potential.
These collaborations, alongside other partnerships between colleges, or between colleges and schools, are helping to improve SEND provision within both specialist and general FE colleges; and transitions from school to FE. ETF research published in June 2022 studied the benefits created by 13 partnerships between specialist and general FE colleges supported by Natspec, the AOC and the ETF. These benefits include enriched learning opportunities through shared provision delivery and facilities; and improved CPD opportunities for staff.
Another collaborative initiative that should deliver further positive results will be the Universal SEND Services programme, which will be delivered by the National Association for Special Educational Needs until 2025.
And, of course, more funding would help every college. Perry says there is a need to redraft part of the SEND Code of Practice to ensure more local authorities fund education beyond 19 for SEND learners. “Some local authorities are reluctant to fund past 19 unless a young person is heading for paid employment, but it’s also supposed to be available if you’re still heading for FE outcomes,” she explains.
More money would also help colleges to recruit and retain staff. “It’s about growing your own for the sector,” says Weston College head of faculty Sam Mayhew, “so there are robust qualifications and training in place for staff to become specialist practitioners; and ensuring they can progress into management roles at parity with their peers in schools and other colleges.”
But it is also vital that specialist colleges continue to play a key role in supporting these learners, says Holloway. He says the way the sector has already got better at identifying and meeting individuals’ needs makes him optimistic about the future.
“This is a sector where people believe in what they’re doing, are prepared to learn from one another, and from their students,” he says. “We’re doing a good job and have the potential to get better, if some of these issues, like transitions, can be improved.”
David Adams is a freelance journalist