The future of a nationally renowned college for blind and partially sighted learners could be put "at risk" as a result of changes to special educational needs funding.
The Royal National College for the Blind, a residential FE college in Hereford, currently has about 100 learners from across the country, but the college has warned that this is expected to drop to about 40 because of a national overhaul of how SEN provision is paid for.
At present, funding for SEN learners aged 16-24 is allocated centrally by the Education Funding Agency. But from September it will instead be allocated by local authorities, and the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned that the transition is proving "exceptionally challenging" for many institutions.
Despite overall funding increasing to #163;639 million in 2013-14 - up #163;54 million on 2011-12 - the AoC says that "wild swings" in allocations based on out-of-date data could leave some institutions out of pocket.
Significantly, many colleges are reporting that authorities are keen to see all provision offered within their own geographical area, rather than funding learners to attend institutions in neighbouring areas and other parts of the country. In some cases, courses and provision could be under threat.
National organisations, such as the Royal National College for the Blind, which takes learners from about 60 local authorities, look set to be the worst affected.
Lucy Proctor, the college's assistant director of business development, fundraising and income generation, said the provisional local authority allocations did not account for the learners who would decide to attend the college later in the year.
"Once people have been rejected by mainstream colleges, that is when we will know how many are likely to be coming to us," she said. "Another problem is that we are encountering resistance from local authorities to referring learners to provision out of their area, and they are instead trying to replicate it locally.
"The assumption is that a residential college is going to be the more expensive option, but (when authorities create their own local arrangements) you have to take into account assisted travel, learning support assistants and other extra costs. We provide a 24-hour learning campus, where students can learn about living independently, meaning they are more likely to be able to go on and live a truly independent life and have a career. This is going to be put at risk."
Deborah Ribchester, senior policy manager at the AoC, said several colleges had been forced to abandon plans to expand their SEN provision for 2013-14. TES understands that one college autism centre currently being built could be under threat before it has even opened.
"The money is there," Ms Ribchester said. "[Local authorities] have all the money that was in the system before, plus 9 per cent more, but in many areas it is not working so well. Existing students are not being funded.
"In some cases courses could be under threat as a result, which would have an impact on everybody else. A couple of colleges had planned for expansion of their provision for high-needs students in September, but they won't be able to do that now."
The AoC told TES that one college that expected to receive 40 SEN students from a neighbouring authority had been told it would not be funded for them. SEN funding was not ring-fenced for the FE sector, Ms Ribchester added, meaning authorities could opt to use SEN allocations for younger pupils instead of teenagers and young adults.
David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, said councils were working to get the new system right, but added that he was concerned the new arrangement would leave local authorities short of funds.
"Councils are already dealing with a 27 per cent reduction to their early intervention grant, which many councils use to provide extra support for children with special educational needs," he said. "They are now having to dip into their schools budget for top-up funding for high needs learners in colleges.
"We will continue to press government for adequate funding so that come September there is an adequate number of places to ensure students with a learning disability can study a course that meets their needs."
Busting the budget
#163;639m 16-24 SEN budget for 2013-14.
40% Proportion by which demand exceeds budget.