The number of specialist colleges is continuing to rise, it has been revealed.
According to Natspec, the number of institutions approved to receive funding from the Education and Skills Funding Agency will be 108 in 2019-20 – up from 101 in 2018-19. That means seven new institutions have been approved for delivery from September.
Last October, Tes reported that the number of post-16 providers for students with special educational needs and disabilities had rocketed in recent years, with the number approved for funding up by more than two-thirds over five years, from 59 in 2013-14.
In depth: When choice backfires
Background: National Star College wins at Tes Fe Awards 2019
Specialist college provision
Sector leaders feared that these new centres were often being created without reference to existing provision, and were frequently very small. With many attached to schools, they can also lack the necessary focus on vocational training in an adult environment.
This week, Natspec chief executive Clare Howard told Tes the ESFA had reacted to those concerns and implemented tougher quality checks before approving new providers. “The trend is still going up and there are still lots of local authorities and others opening specialist centres, but the ESFA has made some changes and that is having an effect,” she said.
Ms Howard added that 14 organisations had applied but only seven had been approved by the ESFA for funding. She explained that there was a three-stage process for new providers to be approved for ESFA funding, and it was stage 3, relating to the quality of provision, that the organisation had been working with the government on.
She stressed that she was not implying that new providers were necessarily offering bad provision, but it was “really difficult to be a good provider immediately and it requires a lot of investment”.
“Have they spoken to local providers in the area (and for specialist colleges, the area is beyond local)? It is that planning with existing providers. It could be a better use of resources for an existing provider to set up a satellite site rather than starting up a new provider from scratch. It is the planning that we are worried about, as well as the quality.”
Natspec was concerned about providers being sufficiently adult-focused, as many of them were attached to schools, and supporting independence, she said, adding: “We would rather not see a school-based curriculum for those learners.”
She said the delay in providers being inspected by Ofsted was also an area of concern. The inspectorate listed 97 specialist colleges as of last month – compared with 72 in 2015. Of those, 74 have been inspected, said Ms Howard. Ofsted has two years from when a new provider opens to set up a monitoring visit, while a full inspection has to take place within a further two years. “That is a concern for learners,” said Ms Howard.
A spokesperson for Ofsted said: "There has not been a delay in the inspection of new independent specialist colleges. Nearly all have received their first inspection within two years, rather than the three-year window."
The spokesperson added that as of September, the inspectorate would carry out a monitoring visit to any new provider within 24 months of it starting to deliver publicly funded education and/or training. "Their first full inspection will then normally take place within 24 months of the monitoring visit."
"When a new provider receives one or more insufficient progress judgements at their monitoring visit, a full inspection will normally be carried out within six to 12 months of the monitoring visit," the spokesperson said.
"We may carry out a full inspection of these providers without a prior monitoring visit, where appropriate. Full details of the monitoring visits can be found in our Further Education and Skills Inspection Handbook from point 14."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Local authorities have statutory duties to support children and young people with special education needs and disabilities and we think it is positive if they have a range of options in their area for this provision so they have more flexibility in the decision that is in the best interests of the individual."
The spokesperson added that as part of the application process for new, post-16 special free schools, local authorities must set out their case for why it is needed, which includes working with existing post-16 providers to ensure this is a good use of resources.
“Special post-16 providers are regularly inspected by Ofsted, and placements are reviewed annually by the local authority to monitor the quality and performance of the provision.”