Considering the value of residential further education for young people with high needs
Moving away from home in pursuit of your aspirations is a big decision for any young person. As the mother of a son who started at university last September, I know it’s a big step for parents too. But it’s a very big leap indeed for young people with SEN or disabilities and their families when they decide on a residential post-16 course.
Different types of residential specialist colleges
There are over fifty specialist colleges in England offering residential places to young people aged 16 to 25 with SEN and disabilities. The colleges come in all shapes and sizes. Some specialise in working with students with conditions such as epilepsy, autism or sensory impairment or a particular level of support need (such as profound and multiple learning difficulties). Some adopt a specific therapeutic approach, while others have a subject specialism, such as performing arts or hospitality and catering. What they all have in common is a commitment to providing an excellent education to young people with high needs, including a strong emphasis on building skills for independence – and for employment, where appropriate.
In most cases, the young people and their families have sought out a residential FE course. For some, it’s been a struggle to get the necessary funding and increasing numbers have found themselves going to tribunal to secure their places. So why are the young people so keen to live away from home and why are their parents happy to let them go?
Residential FE offers students with SEN a bridge into more independent adult lives, just as higher education does for their non-disabled peers. Specialist colleges give families the reassurance that young people are making this important transition in a protected environment, where they will be safe and the risks involved in asserting their independence carefully managed.
Ben, who has an autistic spectrum condition, is a student on a BTEC Sports course. He saw residential specialist college as a way to develop his independence: “I’ve learned to deal with my own business instead of my mother being there and supporting me so it’s making me wiser for my age. If I was at home, my mother would be doing this, that and the other. I’m getting the independence skills that I need to proceed in life.”
A chance to be “normal”
Students sometimes describe being at a residential specialist college as the first time they have really felt “normal” rather than “special”. They find themselves in an environment where their disability does not set them apart and where others, staff and students, understand what it’s like to be them. The residential experience has finally enabled them to build up a strong friendship group, have girlfriends or boyfriends, and to go out and socialise – including going down to the pub – with people with similar life experiences, like the young adults that they are. Finally, they feel included, rather than excluded.
For Danielle, an A level student, it was about being in an environment where she could be “a normal girl who happens to have a visual impairment”. She wanted to learn in “a safe and supportive place. I also really wanted some more independence, and the opportunity to get stuck in to new activities, and meet new people.” Residential specialist college has brought her a “lovely group of friends, friends for life, who accepted and liked me for who I am, and not for who I’m not.”
A holistic education
The residential approach allows colleges to plan and deliver a holistic education for young people. There is an opportunity for them to transfer skills from the classroom, workplace or community to the residences (and vice versa) and for staff to develop and apply a consistent approach to teaching and support across all aspects of a young person’s day-to-day life. The colleges often have an extensive range of staff from multiple disciplines who work together to offer each young person a personalised, seamless package of education, therapy and care.
While the young people benefit from this coherent approach, parents also welcome the fact that they don’t have to seek out and try to coordinate all the different support needs themselves or apply for much-needed respite. Some parents report that the young person’s weekly or termly residential placement has given them the breathing space needed to keep their family together. They are able to focus some of their attention on their other children, re-build their own relationships and restore their energies so that they can continue to support their child with high needs.
Residential further education is not always the first choice for young people with high needs – or for their parents – even for those who end up at a residential college. Sometimes families have to make difficult decisions about their child’s education. For some young people with low-incidence SEN or particularly complex and/or profound and multiple needs, specialist residential colleges can be the only providers capable of meeting their needs.
When Lauren’s parents were first told that her needs could not be met locally, they found it heart-breaking: “We weren’t ready to let go and did not want Lauren to be away from us.” But the realisation that Lauren would be going away to college “forced us to think about a lot of harsh realities we would have just put off and we are glad that she is learning to live and work with other people as we know we are not going to be around forever.” Now that Lauren is happily settled into college, her parents see many benefits, particularly her increased independence and the fact that she is no longer socially isolated: “Lauren is much more independent at college, more so than at home because we are very aware that we are too soft with her and she relies on the fact that we will do everything for her. It is wonderful to see her doing things with her peers and being able to spend time with people of her own age.”
Investing for the future
A residential specialist FE college isn’t right for all high needs students, but it can be the best, and sometimes only, option for a small proportion of them. While it can be costly in the short-term, specialist education can lead to long-term savings, as the 2011 National Audit Office report, Oversight of special education for young people aged 16-25, showed. Investing in high-quality education for young people with SEN and disabilities increases their chances of getting a job and becoming more independent. That means a reduced requirement for support and dependency on benefits in the future.
In her recent report on residential special schools, Good Intentions, Good Enough?, Dame Christine Lenehan noted that residential education can “transform the lives of some of the most vulnerable children and young people”. While residential specialist FE may have been a leap of faith for the young people when they set out on this path, there’s every chance that it’s going to be the springboard into a fulfilling, more independent adult life.
Ruth Perry is policy officer at Natspec, the membership association for organisations which offer specialist provision for students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities:
Phot courtesy of Coleg Elidyr: