New funding arrangements must not compromise young people’s right to choose the college which best meets their needs
All young people should be able to go to a college where their specific needs are met and their aspirations nurtured. Whether that is in mainstream further education or a specialist college, out-of-county or in-county and living at home, part-time or full-time, it is about choice.
However, for young people with complex disabilities, that freedom is being threatened. Changes in funding will mean that they face a postcode lottery when it comes to further education. Under new funding arrangements which come into effect in 2013, local authorities will no longer have to ring-fence funding for school leavers with high levels of need – those who are identified as needing financial support for their education that is likely to exceed £10,000 a year.
There are fears – and many of them substantiated with decisions we have seen made in 2012 – that resources will not be directed where they are needed most.
What does it all mean? Well, for a start, it may mean that there is a huge difference between what parents and local authorities deem suitable education for a young person with disabilities. If parents feel that a specialist college is most suitable, it will depend on the policy of their local authority as to whether it will fund the choice. It will vary from area to area. Your child’s education could depend on whether your authority is interested in long-term value or short-term savings.
While there are established national criteria, provided by the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted, on how to measure such decisions, many local authorities are drawing up their own. The level playing field is about to get very pot-holed indeed.
Mainstream is not suitable for every young person with disabilities, any more than a specialist college is. We should work with each young person and their supporters to agree their aspirations, needs (including health and social care) and their interests. Then a decision should be made on what is best for that young person and their long-term development.
A mother of one of our students has first-hand experience of how the system works. She felt that an out-of-county specialist college was the most suitable choice for her 18-year-old son who has learning difficulties and issues with speech and mobility. Her local authority did not agree. Following a visit to the local day centre, catering for people aged 18 to 80, which her local authority argued could provide for his needs, the family decided to stand their ground. They appealed the decision. They lobbied the local authority. They launched a trust fund as a plan B. Their persistence paid off and their son, now in his second year, is flourishing in a specialist college environment.
What we are seeing more and more, though, is that the students who make it to specialist colleges are those who are fortunate enough to have parents willing to challenge the system, to fight for what they consider best for their children. I fear for those young people not fortunate enough to have such parents.
If you are a parent, don’t despair. You are certainly not alone and there are scores of others around the country who have achieved the best result for their child. And whatever you do, don’t give up. Today more than ever, young people with disabilities and SEN need our support to ensure that their right to access the education that best suits their needs is borne out in reality.
Kathryn Rudd is Principal of the National Star College, Gloucestershire: