The father of a young man with learning disabilities says people like his son risk being shut out of education just when it is benefiting them most.
Nick Wilson, from Preston, claims that a lack of suitable college courses in Central Lancashire threatened to bring the progress of his son, Joseph, to a halt.
Adults with special educational needs can access further education up to the age of 25.
Joseph, who is 21, has been studying at Preston’s College since he was 19. But for the second time in as many years he faced an uncertain future when it came to finding a course for the next academic year.
“Initially, Joseph was on an access course which was designed for his ability and was flexible - but they shut that down last year,” Nick explains.
“Then we were offered a place on an existing one-year course in performing arts, but it did feel like the arrangement was cobbled together - and this year it became obvious that there would be nothing available for him from September.
“In order to get onto the next course, there would be a jump in the demands and he wouldn't be able to meet the entry criteria.”
Preston’s College says that it is offering two courses during 2019/20 which are tailored for students with learning disabilities - the performing arts course which Joseph is about to complete and another in construction. The college stresses that it offers “specialist support” to learners like Joseph who have a special education, health and care (EHC) plan, drawn up by the local authority.
But Nick says that Joseph's disability - which is classed as severe - means that he requires courses categorised at the lower end of the three 'entry levels' into further education.
“He probably wouldn’t have got onto his current course if he hadn’t already been a student at the college,” Nick says.
“They aren’t putting enough courses on - he has done the only one suitable for him and now that’s it. Other students have dozens [to choose from].
“But Joseph’s results showed he was progressing - and I have seen that progression become greater as he has got a bit older.
“Education now works for him, probably more than it ever has done. He is really enjoying the current course as he is learning via different methods.
“They are able to teach English and Maths through a different medium - and, for Joseph, progress comes in many different forms. They shouldn't be taking education away from him at this stage,” Nick adds.
Government guidance on the educational opportunities which should be available to students with special educational needs states that colleges have a duty “to use their best endeavours” to make suitable provision.
Nick has now found an appropriate course for Joseph next year - at Myerscough College in Barton, studying agriculture - but not before he also drew a blank at Runshaw College in Leyland and Cardinal Newman College in Preston.
His experience has left him to reflect on what the future might have held for his son if he had been forced out of further education - and on the prospects for other families who may be dealing with a similar dilemma.
“Joseph would have had to go into voluntary schemes in the community, which are not stimulating - it’s time-filling stuff,” Nick says.
“Even now, we’re looking at what we can find for him after he is 25 which can keep him progressing and give him something to achieve - and it’s not easy.
“These people are the most vulnerable in society and can’t say, ‘What are you doing?’ when they are not being treated as they should. Often, their parents aren’t in a position to fight decisions which go against them either.
“And there’ll be another tranche of kids coming out of special needs schools in the next few weeks with similar levels of disability to Joseph - where do they go?”
COLLEGE “PROUD OF OPPORTUNITIES” IT OFFERS
Lis Smith, Principal and Chief Executive at Preston’s College, said: “Preston’s College provides a specific curriculum offer for young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in both Visual & Performing Arts and Construction. Both programmes will run in the 2019/20 academic year.
“Recently recognised as a ‘good’ provider by Ofsted for our provision for students with high needs, the College provides training for 93 learners with Educational, Health and Care (EHC) plans studying on technical courses from Entry Level to Level 3. In all instances, learners benefit from specialist support that increases their personal and social development as well as their communication skills.
“Preston’s College is recognised locally for providing positive social mobility for a diverse learning community, focusing on high quality education and the promotion of positive progression onto further or higher education, apprenticeships or employment.
“The College is committed to complying with both the Equality Act and the SEND Code of Practice and all learners receive individual plans enabling progress towards agreed outcomes to help meet their aspirations. As such, we wish all learners progressing from the College the very best for their futures.
“Preston’s College is proud of the opportunities that it provides for all its learners, including those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. Learners consistently meet and exceed their potential, with 93% of high needs students achieving their qualifications in 2017/18. The College is committed to equipping all learners with the skills needed for life beyond college.”
‘NEEDS MIGHT EXCEED WHAT CAN BE PROVIDED’
Nick Wilson’s search for suitable course for his son Joseph also took him to both Runshaw and Cardinal Newman colleges - but he claims neither could offer what Jospeh needed.
A spokesperson for Runshaw College said: “We offer a range of courses to all students from Entry Level 3 up to Level 3. We offer extensive advice and guidance at all of our open events.
“All courses at Runshaw College are available to students with a range of support needs. We offer a comprehensive interview with an experienced member of Study Support to students with an EHC plan, prior to them enrolling onto their chosen course, to enable us to fully discuss their support needs and ensure an appropriate package of support provision can be put into place to fully support them on their chosen course.
“In all cases, the college must make every effort to accommodate the individual needs where practicable, however, it may be the case that the needs of the learner exceed what can be reasonably be provided in a general further education college.
“Our supported admissions interview process is designed to facilitate the discussion around an individual’s needs and determine whether Runshaw College is a suitable placement.
Cardinal Newman College was approached for comment.
WHAT SHOULD COLLEGES BE PROVIDING?
The rules governing further education provision for young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are laid down in the SEND Code of Practice (0-25).
The code states that educational establishments must “give the right support” to students with special needs, but is not specific about the type of courses which should be offered:
“Students with an EHC plan up to the age of 25 should follow a coherent study programme which provides stretch and progression and enables them to achieve the best possible outcomes in adult life," it says.
“Schools and colleges are expected to design study programmes which enable students to progress to a higher level of study than their prior attainment, take rigorous, substantial qualifications, study English and maths, participate in meaningful work experience and non-qualification activity.
“They should not be repeating learning they have already completed successfully.
“Colleges should be ambitious for young people with special educational needs, whatever their needs and whatever their level of study.”
Colleges also have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to prevent discrimination.
ALL ABOUT THE MONEY?
A new report shows that there has been an increase in real terms funding for further education students with special needs over the past decade.
Research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank concluded that the cash reserved for students with high needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds went up by 68 percent between 2010/11 and 2018/19.
However, the calculation does not distinguish between the rate of increase for special needs pupils and that for fully able students from poorer backgrounds. It also focuses only on provision for 16-19-year-olds - whereas special needs students are entitled to access further education up to the age of 25.
Further education colleges receive financial help from government when they have to provide additional support for pupils, totalling more than £6,000 a year, according to the EPI report.
The statistics for high needs students sit against the backdrop of an overall decline in further education funding over the same period. The sector registered a real terms, per pupil fall in funding of 16 percent in the eight years up to 2018 - double the drop in school spending during that time.
WHAT ABOUT ELSEWHERE IN LANCASHIRE?
The recently-merged Nelson and Colne and Accrington and Rossendale Colleges said it publishes specified entry criteria and the support available to SEND students.
A spokesperson added: "It is the responsibility of all colleges to co-operate with the local authority in order to develop provision for young people with SEND and enable access to education through existing resources and reasonable adjustments. With this in mind, Nelson and Colne and Accrington and Rossendale College courses are designed to prepare and support learners to develop skills for adulthood, including the development of independence and progression into further education or employment.
"In order to achieve the above, all learners applying for a course at our college who are identified as experiencing a learning difficulty or disability will be assessed by an appropriately qualified member of staff. A full and robust assessment will be completed, detailing all available information to ensure reasonable adjustments that can be made are made, within the colleges best endeavours. Further to this, an evidence based support plan is put into place that is reviewed regularly and used to informed discussions about progress and progression with young people and their parents/guardians.
"Nelson and Colne and Accrington and Rossendale College adopt an inclusive approach to learning, using differentiated teaching and support plans to take account of individual requirements. Reasonable adjustments are embedded within the colleges best endeavours, to ensure learners with SEND needs are able to fully access the curriculum, including the assessment / exam process.
"Nelson and Colne and Accrington and Rossendale College is committed to anti-discriminatory practice to promote equality of opportunity and valuing diversity for all young people. This includes treating individuals with SEND fairly with due recognition and value of difference during their recruitment and enrolment procedures."