A public health warning over cuts to SEND and adult education

9th November 2018 at 00:00
The government says it wants to improve life expectancy – but it is ignoring the fact that the funding crisis in SEND education is one of the reasons why lives are cut short, writes Ed Dorrell

Sometimes doing this job is so frustrating.

To sit here and watch the machinations of the politicians who purport to govern this country and the mainstream media who claim to hold them to account makes me feel like banging my head against a brick wall.

Monday morning was just such an occasion. Listening to Radio 4’s Today programme, I was left infuriated by two stories that appeared on the news bulletin: two completely interconnected stories that were treated as if they had nothing to do with one another.

The first was the news that health secretary Matt Hancock is planning to refocus the NHS on public health, setting an ambitious – and presumably utterly arbitrary – target that his department would improve average life expectancy by five years by encouraging and educating people to live healthier lives.

The second was the publication of an unsurprising but hugely depressing research paper from University College London saying that people with diagnosed learning difficulties die on average 15 to 20 years earlier than their contemporaries.

The screaming omissions that should have linked these stories about life expectancy are so obvious, it’s almost painful: cuts to funding for special educational needs and disabilities and adult education (see pages 48-53) will undermine the first situation and have the potential to make the second even worse. Together, these are the sectors of education that politicians can most easily ignore and most easily raid for cash.

It is all the more galling that this conversion to public health – incidentally, the least sexy of the health sectors – should come from Hancock, who, you will no doubt have spotted, was the FE and skills minister who oversaw some of the coalition government’s deepest cuts to adult education. It is a fact near universally acknowledged by the public and near universally ignored by politicians such as Hancock that the greater a society buys into adult and lifelong learning, the happier, wealthier and healthier it becomes. Put simply, its citizens learn to make better decisions for themselves and their children.

Hancock should be applauded for his clarity that public health is key to a more effective – and potentially more affordable – health service, but his diagnosis is only halfway there. Instead of just splashing the billions awarded to his department in the Budget, he should have been phoning up the chancellor and demanding more money for adult education as well. It would make his new mission considerably more achievable.

While he’s at it, Hancock should also point out to “Spreadsheet” Phil Hammond that one of the reasons for the tragic average life expectancy of people with learning difficulties is the poor state of funding for SEND education. I’d like to imagine that the chancellor wouldn’t have been able to ignore the recent campaign by parents and teachers on the subject but I’m not that naive.

If Hancock fancied going into specifics, he might also have highlighted the even more stark state of education for SEND adults. To say there is a provision cliff-edge at 18 for many of our most vulnerable people is really no exaggeration: too many children with huge challenges who make significant progress at school are suddenly abandoned when they reach adulthood by a system starved of cash.

The other day I was asked why adult education and FE are so often treated so shabbily by governments, and I answered with the truism that most politicians have no personal experience of these sectors and so unthinkingly neglect them. Sadly, the same largely goes for SEND.

This week Hancock’s new enthusiasm for public health and UCL’s arresting research ought to have made such unconscious bias less sustainable. But experience tells me we should not hold our breath.

Ed Dorrell is Tes' head of content. He tweets @Ed_Dorrell

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