I’ve talked a lot in this column about funding and the decade of neglect that colleges have suffered, and rightly, too, given the impact that has had on their capacity to meet needs. But one part of education funding that has risen – and is set to rise again next year by over 11 per cent – is the so-called high-needs budget. Next year this budget will be £7.8 billion to support young people from age 0 to 25 who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
To put it into perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to the total turnover of all of the colleges in England, and the rise is necessary because costs and needs have increased every year for the past couple of decades and remain on an upward trajectory. Unsurprisingly, given the rising demands and the money involved, the government has been reviewing the system and a Green Paper is due this summer.
This is an area of policy and funding that has seen changes before, with ambitious reforms in 2014 that aimed to give a more central role to young people and their families in deciding where and how they should learn. Unfortunately, those reforms have been hampered by funding issues and other difficulties, which means the ambition has not been delivered. For colleges, changes cannot come soon enough because they often struggle to access a fair share of this budget to meet learner needs as the system is very focused on schools and younger age groups.
More funding needed for SEND students in FE colleges
Colleges simply want policy and funding to better reflect the different but equally important phases of 0 to 16 and 16- to 25-year-olds. I’ve seen brilliant provision that supports older SEND students to develop the vital life skills that will help them live more independently, truly empowering them as well as supporting many into jobs, which can help transform their lives. All too often those goals feel pushed to the bottom of the priorities list when scarce resources are being fought over. I hope that changes.
The reality now is that there is more focus on schools rather than colleges, and on young people rather than the whole age group. A key marker of this is that 16- to 25-year-olds with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) make up 30 per cent of all those with EHCPs and yet only 17 per cent of the high-needs budget. In 2019-20, local authorities placed over 64,000 students with EHCPs in colleges, 90 per cent of them in general FE colleges and the rest in specialist colleges.
The transition to college for any student can be a mixture of excitement and apprehension, but it can be particularly challenging for SEND students. Sadly, the process is complex with an arcane system of "consultation letters" for students with EHCPs, which means local authorities often agree places only a few months before September start dates. The high-needs funding is distributed through a complex bureaucratic process that burdens colleges and baffles families and differs in each local authority.
There are some simple remedies. By strengthening the duties in the existing SEN Code of Practice for transition goals to be set in Year 9, and by providing dedicated local authority transition workers to navigate the process over a period of years, learners and their families/carers would have clarity sooner and have more say. Some colleges already have excellent practice around transitions, but this is where they have worked hard with their local authorities and it is not universally good.
Not only do students want to know where they are going – colleges also want to plan for them. Under current rules, colleges often do not know how much high-needs funding they have until months after students arrive. Our recent report with Natspec and the Local Government Association set out alternative approaches that would provide for more planning to build capacity and capability for meeting future need.
There is also a large set of issues around how students without EHCPs fare in the system. Many arrive at colleges with little documentation about the support they need and the funding is wholly inadequate to provide the support. National transition standards and protocols would help, as would more funding earmarked specifically for these learners.
The funding matters because general FE colleges, unlike schools, are not resourced to provide support for those students who do not have “high needs”. Support is supposed to be drawn from the “disadvantage block” of programme funding. But this income has many other purposes; it is not calculated with this group fully in mind so often does not reflect need – and the needs of this group of students are often considerable.
The Green Paper should implement a more transparent mechanism to provide these students with the support they need. This should begin with setting a rate equivalent to schools’ funding per learner. Without this parity, in a system that is already underfunded, post-16 will fall further behind, risking the long-term outcomes for young people. According to in-year census data, 23 per of younger learners in colleges – at least 130,000 students – require this level of support. Their needs are real and varied. Sometimes a relatively small intervention, like a crucial piece of assistive technology for a student with a visual impairment, can make all the difference in their educational journey. The AoC estimates that the likely cost of parity with schools would be some £500 million.
What the AoC and Natspec want from the Green Paper:
- Parity of support with schools for the 130,000 learners without high needs.
- Clear transfer of information for students without EHCPs.
- Better mechanisms for timely transitions into college for students with EHCPs.
Colleges are a lifeline for so many SEND learners. Some find it hard to learn at school but then blossom at college. Others, especially special-school leavers, need extra time in education because of their pace of development. Colleges do brilliant work in providing individualised learning to the extraordinary range of students included under the term “SEND”, but they cannot continue to do so if the Green Paper fails to put more emphasis on the role of colleges in this important area of learning.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges.