Young people with SEND left in limbo with no place for September

with Ruth Perry, Senior Policy Manager at Natspec, the membership body for specialist FE colleges.

One of the things we've been hearing, that's been borne out by our coronavirus and SEND survey, is the number of young people with SEND who still don't have confirmed places for September for their post-16 placement.

The deadline for updating Post 16 education, health and care plans (EHCPs), naming new placements, was March 31st. While this is just after lockdown began, it was still before the "relaxation" of timescales for EHCPs under the Coronavirus Act.

The final notice for the reduction in absolute duty to provide for EHCPs, that came into force in May, expired at the end of July. This means all EHCPs are now back in force. However, the softened (read, non-existent) regulations for the timescales are still in place until September 25th, although government say they are keeping this under review.

Today, Ruth Perry, Senior Policy Manager at Natspec, the membership body for specialist FE colleges in on SNJ explaining more about this very worrying issue and what LAs must do urgently, to support young people with disabilities.

Young people with SEND left in limbo by Ruth Perry, Natspec

All over the country, young people are nervously waiting to find out what September holds for them. Will they get the GCSE grades they need to stay on in the sixth form or make it onto a college course? Will their A level results see them heading off to university?

However, school-leavers with an Education Health and Care (EHC) Plan should not be among these anxious teenagers. Why not? Because there is a statutory deadline of 31 March by which their further education (FE) places should have been confirmed. And yet thousands of young people with EHC Plans are still in limbo, not knowing where they will be in September.

These young people should by now have had several months of carefully planned transition activity. Moving from school to college is a huge step for young people with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). A successful transition takes a great deal of work by both school and college, as information is shared, bespoke support packages and learning are planned, and the young person - and their family - is helped to understand and prepare for the changes ahead. The early deadline for confirming places is also supposed to allow for any appeals or disputes to be successfully resolved in time for the young person to start at college with their peers in September.

Ruth Perry, Senior Policy Manager at Natspec
Ruth Perry, Senior Policy Manager at Natspec

Don't blame coronavirus

You might be thinking, "We’re in the middle of a pandemic, you’ve got to expect a bit of slippage". But this isn’t a situation caused by COVID-19. The pandemic has certainly thrown up some extra challenges, but every year the March 31 deadline is routinely missed for large numbers of young people. When the government temporarily modified aspects of SEND legislation earlier this year, it suspended a number of statutory timescales. But the deadline for confirming places for young people transferring from school to FE was not one of them. Why not? Because it had already passed. The Department for Education (DfE) guidance on the legislative changes simply advised local authorities that any outstanding cases should be dealt with quickly.

We don’t know the full picture, as it seems no-one is gathering accurate data about the number of places yet to be confirmed. But we know that we are not just talking about a handful. In May this year, we did our own survey of Natspec members (all specialist FE colleges, sometimes known as specialist post-16 institutions or SPIs). Respondents reported that on average, just 26% of expected placements for new starters were confirmed; 31% of the colleges had no placements confirmed at all.

One principal told us, "I sent out all funding and placement offers in Feb and gave a deadline for 31st March. Not one funding agreement was made by that date, despite constant chasing and additional information being provided."

Same old, same old... and not just specialist provision

You’d think colleges would have been in a state of panic at this point, but they were surprisingly philosophical. While just over half (53%) said there was more uncertainty than normal, the remainder said the picture was the same as in previous years. This is borne out by Natspec’s own data which shows that over the past few years typically 50% of placements in member colleges were not agreed by June. 

It’s not just an issue for young people applying to specialist colleges, either. You might expect that for some individuals with more complex needs, finding the right place could be tricky and end up taking longer than planned. But many general FE colleges (GFEs) have also been reporting low numbers of confirmed places. So much so, that in July, Natspec and the Association of Colleges (AoC), the membership body for GFEs, wrote a joint letter to DfE officials urging them to help break the log-jam. We know, as a result, local authority staff who tuned into virtual regional meetings with DfE advisers were verbally reminded to sort things out, but that doesn’t seem to have led to any significant movement.

Why is this always an issue?

Here at Natspec, we are not interested in apportioning blame, but we do want to find out why the 31 March deadline is so often missed and how collectively we can address the issue. We know it causes a huge amount of anxiety for young people and their families. It’s also a major headache for colleges. When you don’t know your numbers or the support needs of your incoming cohort until late into the summer holidays, it’s very difficult to plan and resource your provision. (Add in the need this year for sorting out the necessary COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures, including how to group learners safely, and it becomes a bit of nightmare.)

We would like to understand why in some local areas the vast majority of FE transfers are sorted by March 31 while in others it’s very few. We’d like to know if some or all of the following are contributing factors, and what else is getting in the way:

  • a lack of strategic planning for post-16 and post-19 provision, resulting in a lack of clear progression routes
  • limited information on Local Offer websites and a lack of independent careers advice about post-school options
  • insufficient focus on post-school plans in annual reviews from Year 9 onwards
  • a reluctance amongst families to begin the process of exploring and selecting post-school options early enough
  • communication breakdown between colleges and local authorities while possible placements are being explored
  • lack of clarity from colleges about the nature of their provision and the sort of needs they can meet
  • a reluctance by local authorities to commit to funding more costly provision, even where it best meets young people’s needs - because of limited budgets
  • the fact there is no penalty for missing the deadline.

We need the different stakeholders to come together to understand the issues from one another’s perspectives, to work out what the barriers are and how to address them. We can’t just shrug our shoulders about a statutory deadline being missed for so many and with such frequency. The misery caused to young people by doing nothing is simply unacceptable.

Ruth Perry is Senior Policy Manager at Natspec, the membership body for specialist FE colleges.

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Tania Tirraoro
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