Will the SEND and AP Improvement Plan improve the lives of 16-25 year olds with SEND?

Photo of teenagers with caption "Will the SEND and AP improvement plan improve the lives of 16-25 year olds with SEND?"

So, at last we have a SEND and AP Improvement Plan. The big question now is: was it worth the wait? If you’re a 16 to 25-year-old with special educational needs or a disability (SEND), their parent or carer, or a professional working with this age group, the answer has to be ‘no’.

Missed opportunities to support young adults

A major opportunity to consider how an effective, aspirational SEND system should work for young people as they enter adulthood has been missed. And along with it, the chance to fix some of the issues that have long been plaguing this final stage in what is supposed to be a 0 – 25 system. Sometimes it genuinely feels like the government don’t realise that children with SEND grow up: they leave school; most go on to college (some also to university); before they enter the adult world. There is no good pouring all your energy and resource into trying to fix the school system only to leave the problems facing the college system and adult health and social care unaddressed. How will that help ensure that young people step out of the SEND system with ambitious outcomes achieved, ready to lead a fulfilling adult life?

What is included in the plan?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good things in the SEND Improvement Plan for young people. The trouble is most are reminders of initiatives already happening rather than new announcements or financial commitments. We are told once again how the Department for Education (DfE) is investing in supported internships and working to improve qualifications at level 3 and below.

A long-awaited pilot to reduce the English and maths requirements in apprenticeships for young people with SEND, as recommended by a 2016 review, will finally be happening. We are reminded that as part of the new Skills Post-16 Education Act, local Learning and Skills Improvement Plans should give some consideration to closing the disability employment gap and governors in general further education (GFE) colleges must regularly review their SEND provision.

There’s just one completely new commitment from the DfE specific to this age group, and that’s to introduce some national standards for transition, prioritising transitions in and out of post-16 settings in the first instance.

We are also told about a recent Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) project to make Job Centres more autism-friendly and a DWP trial in some local areas of a supported employment scheme to help people with learning disabilities and/or autism to find and retain work. And the slow-moving trial of a DWP adjustments passport to make getting in-work support easier is once again wheeled out.

What is missing from the plan?

All of these are welcome (although I still have reservations about the DfE’s direction of travel when it comes to qualification reform). The trouble is they don’t amount to a coherent 16-25 strategy, and they don’t fix some of the well-documented problems affecting this age group in the current system.

Back in April 2022, I shared with SNJ readers my disappointment in the lack of 16-25 content in the Green Paper. ‘There is neither recognition of symptoms, diagnosis or suggested cure,’ I wrote. Things have moved on slightly in the Improvement Plan in as much as there is more acknowledgement of the issues. Problems with FE commissioning and funding (particularly for supporting students with lower-level needs), transition into adult social care, and the process for getting Disabled Students’ Allowance for higher education are all acknowledged. What is still missing is solutions to these problems. In most cases, we are simply promised that government will continue to work on the issue. How long, oh Lord, how long?

At the start of the SEND review, there were three priority areas of improvement for 16 – 25-year-olds on which I was desperately hoping government would focus:

  • making leaving education less of a cliff-edge experience
  • cross-departmental work to ensure young people are given every opportunity to apply the skills, knowledge and confidence gained through their time in education, e.g. in employment, adult learning, community involvement, independent or supported housing
  • resourcing and supporting further education so colleges can offer rich learning experiences and fully meet young people’s needs.

To make the government’s job easier, Natspec and partner body AoC, who represent general FE colleges, provided them with a list of actions that would help bring about these – and other – improvements. For example, we suggested an independent transition worker should support young people and their families to make informed choices at key points in their learning journey. Instead, we get a set of transition standards and ‘a tailored list’ of options drawn up by the local authority. We wanted to see funding for students on SEND support in general FE colleges set at a level that matches what’s available to children in schools – not an offer to continue working with the sector to reform the FE funding system. More ambitious suggestions such as a programme to increase housing options for disabled young people and commissioning processes that enable young people to simultaneously access specialist and general FE settings or to make a phased move from education to adult social services just aren’t considered at all.

Almost all of the 16-year-olds with SEND who were starting out at college back in September 2019 when the SEND Review was launched will now have left education altogether. How many more generations must pass through this under-resourced, under-prioritised part of the system before government finally gives it the attention our young people need and deserve?

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Ruth Perry, Senior Policy Manager, Natspec

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