A "crisis" in funding for FE students with serious learning difficulties and disabilities could lead to more young people being sent to long-term institutions away from their families, campaigners have warned.
The funding shortfall has been driven by increasing demand from students with high needs, with the Education Funding Agency (EFA) reporting that demand outstripped the pound;640 million budget for post-16 students by 40 per cent. It has been forced to cap the increase in student places at 24 per cent.
The rapid introduction of a new funding system - where local authorities assess the demand for support for students with severe learning difficulties and allocate funds - is also being blamed by some colleges, which have, in the most severe cases, lost hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding for students.
Together, these issues threaten the government's attempts to introduce what it calls the biggest reform in special educational needs (SEN) provision for 30 years: the creation from 2014 of a single assessment and care plan covering education, health and social care from birth to age 25, providing legal rights to education support post-16 for the first time.
Helen Jones, the Labour MP for Warrington North, called on ministers to address the funding gap in a parliamentary debate earlier this month. Partly because funding for the next academic year was based on figures for 2010, she said that Warrington Borough Council was allocated pound;1.5 million when it estimated it needed pound;3.9 million, potentially leaving 77 students with high needs without help.
"When Warrington received its allocation in late December, it found itself plunged into a crisis," Ms Jones said. Lack of funding betrayed the ambitions of the SEN reforms introduced by government, which were intended to increase choice and access to education for disabled students, improving equality of opportunity, she added. According to colleges, some local authorities are even refusing to approve payments for some students continuing their education this year.
At Moulton College in Northampton, half of the 81 students with high needs have not received funding this year; for a dozen of them, the college is paying pound;30,000 each for their support. "Ultimately, it's the young person with high needs who is going to suffer if we can't meet their needs," said principal Stephen Davies.
Di Roberts, principal of Brockenhurst College and chair of the Association of Colleges' portfolio group on SEN, said that increasing diagnosis of special needs contributed to the demand, but added that the raising of the participation age next year was also likely to mean many more students in post-16 education with learning difficulties.
Research has shown that only one in four students with autism currently remains in education after school, for example. Funding for post-16 students is also not ring-fenced, Ms Roberts said, creating a risk that local authorities may use it for younger students, further widening the funding gap.
Kate Williams, head of policy and public affairs at Ambitious About Autism, a charity that has campaigned for better educational options for post-16 students with special needs, said shortfalls would mean many families would not cope and young people could be forced into expensive, and sometimes unsafe, institutions. "The consequence of this funding gap will be more young disabled people ending up in long-term institutions such as Winterbourne View. It's not good for the young person, and it will cost the taxpayer much more in the long run," she said.
Winterbourne View is the hospital that was exposed by the BBC's Panorama in 2011 for assaults and abuse of people with learning disabilities, prompting a government inquiry. In the wake of the scandal, the government promised more support to keep disabled people with their families. More than 3,400 people with learning disabilities are kept in NHS-funded residential hospitals, and many more in residential social care; on average, Winterbourne cost more than pound;180,000 a year per person.
Responding in the parliamentary debate, schools minister David Laws said that local authorities had been put in control of the high-needs student funding in order to create a coherent system pre-16 and post-16. "We are not using the change as an opportunity to cut funding overall," he said, adding that post-16 special needs funding had risen 9 per cent in the two years since 2011.
But he suggested that some local authorities may have exaggerated the scale of the demand, with an increase at post-16 level that is not seen in younger age groups. Mr Laws said local authorities had until 22 February to appeal to the EFA about their funding allocation. "If adjustments are necessary, we are open to making them in a limited number of strong cases," he said.
- The total funding for high needs students in 2013-14 was pound;640 million.
- Demand exceeds this budget by 40 per cent.
- The cap placed on the increase in funding allocations is 24 per cent.
- At Moulton College in Northampton, 40 students were refused at least pound;19,000 of funding this year.
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