Almost a third of specialist colleges have no new students confirmed for next year – weeks after the statutory March deadline, a new survey has shown.
According to the survey from specialist college umbrella organisation Natspec, transition from school to college has been seriously delayed this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with an average of only 26 per cent of new starters confirmed. A total of 31 per cent of specialist colleges having no new students confirmed for next year, despite the statutory deadline of 31 March.
While that deadline is routinely missed, Natspec has said the Covid-19 outbreak had exacerbated the situation with decision-making significantly slowed or stalled.
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Natspec’s survey, to which over half of the sector’s over 100 specialist colleges delivering further education and training for students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities responded, shows how the seven weeks of lockdown have affected provision both on and off-site.
It also considers what impact Covid-19 could have on specialist FE provision in the longer term. According to the survey, the majority of specialist college sites have remained open, and the proportion open has grown between March and May from 58 per cent to 81 per cent. The proportion of students still attending on college sites has also gone up – although the majority of day and residential students remains at home.
The survey, which questioned colleges in March and May, also finds the proportion of staff unable to work has decreased – from 32 per cent to 17 per cent of staff.
Colleges say social distancing will be very difficult or impossible for some learners and sites, and other health and safety measures and the use of PPE is being considered.
According to the survey, there is significant uncertainty about the financial impact of Covid-19 on the specialist college sector. Nearly three-quarters of colleges indicate their financial health has been affected negatively, or they are uncertain whether this is the case. Cash flow is the biggest concern, with 80 per cent of colleges indicating it is or could be an issue, while 57 per cent of colleges are concerned about their solvency.
Clare Howard, Natspec chief executive, said the survey showed that specialist colleges were doing some amazing work in very tough circumstances. “They are continuing provision for learners, either on-site or at home, on a risk-assessed basis, with most planning an increase in face-to-face learning in the coming weeks, where it is safe to do so, and they are informing and supporting families and carers.
“However there are increasing concerns about next year. 31 per cent of specialist colleges have no new students confirmed to start next year, despite the statutory deadline of placements being agreed by March 31. Not only is this causing considerable stress and anxiety for young people, who are unsure where they might be for the next academic year, it also has serious financial implications for specialist colleges. It is critical to have a full cohort of first-year students each year in terms of the ongoing sustainability of the college, and they are unable to plan for the year ahead without confirmation of student numbers and the associated funding they will receive.”
She said members had overwhelmingly reported that they had a collaborative relationship with local authorities, who fund high needs provision. “We are now asking that LAs continue the high level of trust they have placed in specialist colleges and confirm placements as soon as possible so that colleges can plan effectively for next year”
Mike Gamble, head of college at Sheiling College, said about two-thirds of the expected intake for next year were currently confirmed, and the pandemic had created significant uncertainty. “There has been significantly less clarity, however, it is difficult to say how the pandemic has directly influenced this and there are no late referrals coming - which usually happens about now.” He said he hoped the government would consider transitional funding or extended placements to facilitate the difficult transition in and out of college for the college’s cohort of learners.
Mark Dale, principal and chief executive of Portland College, said his institution had around a third of students confirmed. “We are about two to three weeks behind where we would normally be at this time of year, but we have now restarted with a virtual assessment process, we are getting funding communications through. We are slightly behind but we are confident we can catch up by September.
He said there had been some disruption when schools, local authorities and the college itself were focused on re-planning delivery to deal with the pandemic. “That occupied about two to three weeks and that’s what has caused the gap.”
Mr Dale said: “We are not anticipating any problems with cash flow, but we are not certain of the financial impact and therefore we are not sure what impact it will have on our financial health. We have looked to make any cost savings where we can. We have plenty of cash and we are confident that the issue is manageable.”