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UK General Election: Election manifestos have ignored post-16 SEND

Election manifestos have ignored post-16 SEND

David Holloway
Senior Policy Manager – SEND, Association of Colleges

David Holloway - head shot

The manifestos published by UK political parties in June 2024 were unanimous about one thing: special education needs and disabilities (SEND) policy is all about schools.

The Conservatives and Reform UK promise more special free schools, or that they will double the number of pupil referral units. The Labour party want to make mainstream schools more inclusive. The Liberal Democrats want to give local authorities powers over admissions in ‘education’, presumably meaning schools, unless they really consider that councils have the knowhow to manage admissions in universities and colleges.

In fact, reading all the manifestos, one could be forgiven for thinking that when pupils leave school, they also leave education and leave any educational needs behind them. But of course, that is far from being the case. To just point out that 14.6% of education, health and care plans (EHCPs) are held by students in further education (FE) would be to understate the importance of colleges in the SEND system.

Of school pupils with SEND, very many will go to college. This is partly because colleges are skilled in meeting need. It is partly because colleges are well positioned to teach vocational subjects like hairdressing, social care, games design, and construction, and so can match the right course to the right student. And it is partly because other destinations, like some school sixth forms, are rather selective in who they enrol. Data analysis published by Association of Colleges (AoC) this month, shows that of college students funded through 16-18 funding, 29.9% have SEND. This is a much higher proportion than that found in schools.

So why do the parties focus on school-age SEND? Is it simply because saying “we will meet the needs of children” sounds more impressive than adding “and young people”? Ignoring the existence of college students risks creating poor policy. The difficulty is that just adding “and young people” or “and colleges” risks creating even worse policy. College students’ needs are often different to their needs when they were younger; they are trying to achieve different goals in different environments. If we really want provision to focus on preparation for adulthood, then both our thinking and our language should reflect that.

The aim in some manifestos to make mainstream schools more inclusive is consistent with that of the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan. It may well also be consistent with what politicians hear in their surgeries.  But tagging on ‘and colleges’ to this aim would be unreasonable because colleges are already highly inclusive. Of EHCPs held by students in FE, only 10% of are held by students in colleges specialising in SEND. In contrast, figures published by the Department for Education this month show that 42% of school pupils with EHCPs are in special schools. Every year, thousands of young people progress from special schools to FE colleges; even those who need an adjusted curriculum can share campus facilities with the rest of the student population.

The issues that need to be addressed for college students are very different. Research from AoC has shown that funding for students with SEND but without high needs is not just insufficient but also wildly inconsistent. Meanwhile transitions into college are sabotaged by chaotic commissioning by local authorities, uninformative EHCPs, and lack of information from schools about students without EHCPs. Other changes are needed too, as AoC has set out in its SEND policy paper.

There is too much talk in the SEND system about students having ‘placements’. This is misleading. Education is not a place – it is a journey. Both children and young people want to thrive and flourish as independent adults. For that they need a genuinely inclusive system that is inclusive of all needs – and all ages.

David Holloway

23 June 2024

David Holloway is Senior Policy Manager for SEND at the Association of Colleges. He has worked in SEND in colleges for more than 20 years as a teacher, a teacher trainer, and a manager of SEND provision.




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