These are difficult and uncertain times for everyone – and there’s no mileage in claiming that any one sector is worse off than another as a result of coronavirus. Organisations across the country are facing financial uncertainty, worrying about their staff, their customers or clients, wondering how best to ride it out… But in the midst of all of the guidance about social distancing and self-isolation, schools and colleges are being asked as far as possible to continue with business as usual.
For students in specialist FE colleges, there is good reason to think that college probably is the best place for many of them right now, particularly those who have carefully constructed education and care packages that cannot be easily replicated in their own homes. It’s one thing to ask university students to switch overnight from face-to-face to online learning, quite another if your students have sensory impairments, are non-verbal or require intensive learning, medical or therapy support. For a small number of students, college is their home for 52 weeks a year; there is no other home to send them back to.
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Specialist FE colleges are committed to doing everything possible to stay open for their students. They take their duty of care extremely seriously. But at the same time, they are busy scenario-planning: how will they manage if staff begin to fall sick or have to self-isolate because they are themselves in a high-risk group or someone in their household has coronavirus? Staff-to-student ratios are necessarily high because of the complexity of the students’ needs; will they reach a tipping point where colleges risk-assess that they can longer keep students healthy and safe? What will happen then?
The impact of coronavirus on specialist colleges
Government guidance for schools and colleges is currently very generic and poses more questions than answers for specialist settings. It amounts to little more than: stay open, send home anyone who is sick (staff or student), make sure everyone washes their hands, keep everywhere as clean as possible. But what if your students are over the age of 18 and classified as "vulnerable" according to the latest government social distancing guidance? The list now includes "people with learning disabilities" – that’s the entire cohort for many specialist colleges. What if your college is also classified as a care home?
Natspec is currently working with the Department for Education to help provide some more targeted guidance for specialist FE providers which recognises their specific circumstances. This guidance should help them to make critical decisions: decisions which not only affect students’ welfare but also their own financial position.
Specialist colleges do not tend to have large reserves. Many are run by charities or not-for-profit organisations. They are wholly dependent on Education and Skills Funding Agency funding and local authority high-needs budgets for the education they provide for some of our most complex young people. This makes them completely reliant on local authorities honouring existing contracts and paying invoices in a timely fashion. As early as last week, some colleges were reporting to Natspec that their local authority was planning to withhold payment if the college closed or sent students home.
We have sought urgent legal advice to determine whether this would be lawful and have been reassured that where government directs a college to close, there is no justification for a local authority to refuse to pay for contracts entered into under the standard National Contract version 2.5 for independent schools and colleges. The situation is not so clear where a college is forced to close due to staff shortages or student sickness.
Natspec is, therefore, asking the Department for Education to issue guidance to local authorities setting out their legal obligation to make payments to specialist colleges from the high-needs budget in the event of a government-directed closure. We are also asking that the Department advises local authorities that college closures resulting from staff shortages caused by staff following government guidelines for self-isolation should be treated in exactly the same way.
The financial impact of coronavirus on colleges is inevitable. This is a critical period in terms of admissions and assessments for next September but it’s unlikely that much of that will happen now – at least not to ordinary timescales. Student places dependent on tribunal outcomes are likely to remain uncertain for many months to come. For colleges that are just on the right side of financial viability, these are very worrying times. We shouldn’t be increasing that anxiety by putting in jeopardy income already agreed through existing contracts. And the country certainly cannot afford to risk wiping out a host of highly specialist providers, without whom the needs of our most complex young people would in the future go unmet.
Ruth Perry is senior policy manager at Natspec, the membership association for colleges offering specialist provision for students with learning difficulties and disabilities