Life after school


What are the options for young people with SEN once they leave school?

Young people with disabilities and SEN have broadly the same opportunities available to them at age 16 as their peers. However, they often need a range of adjustments, from support in the classroom to transport support and services, to ensure that they can make the most of these opportunities.

Choosing the best options and ensuring that the right support is in place are parts of the transition process that starts in Year 9, when the student is choosing their GCSEs. The options can range from going to a school sixth form to looking for permanent employment. This article focuses on opportunities in further education, higher education and apprenticeships. It also looks at careers guidance issues and anticipates some of the changes to further education which are in the pipeline.

All education and training providers have a legal duty under the Equality Act 2010 not to treat learners with SEN and/or disabilities less favourably in admissions or while they are studying. They also have a duty under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled students are not substantially disadvantaged. This means that all students should be able to access the campus and college facilities, including the library, computer labs and classrooms. While studying and on placements, they should have access to the equipment and human support that will enable them to meet their potential.

Careers guidance

Between the ages of 14 and 25, young people usually have to make important decisions about their education. For those with SEN and/or disabilities it can be a confusing and complicated time, as they often receive support from a number of different agencies, including health, social care services and education.

Quality and timely careers education, advice and guidance ensures that young people with SEN and their parents are empowered to make informed decisions about their future, not just 16 to 19, but 19+ and throughout their adult lives. Careers advice makes sure that all young people are aware of the options available to them, without stereotyped limitations. It raises the aspirations of young people, their parents, teachers and other professionals who work with them. For learners with SEN and/or disabilities, careers guidance can help to ensure a smoother transition from school to post-16/19 provision, training, independent living and employment.

Learning difficulty assessments

Local authorities are responsible for carrying out assessment and progression plans for young people with SEN who are expecting to move from school into further or higher education. This may be called a learning difficulty assessment or a Section 139A assessment.

Local authorities have a legal duty to provide this assessment for all young people with a statement of SEN who are likely to receive further education, training or higher education. They also have the power to arrange an assessment for disabled young people without a statement of SEN who appear to the authority to have a learning difficulty. This is important as many disabled young people don’t have a statement for various reasons, but they still need support to continue and achieve their potential.

The assessment should bring together reports from medical, social care and education assessments and make clear the preferred choice of course and future plans of the young person and their parents’ views. This helps local colleges, training providers and residential colleges work out what support will be required. The assessment should also help the local authority to plan ahead and ensure that students with SEN have a choice of local provision.

The s139A assessment should be an integral part of a student’s careers advice and guidance and help the student to plan ahead towards supported employment, employment or independent living.

FE colleges

Further education (FE) is usually for people aged 16 years or over and takes place in colleges, training providers, the workplace or a combination of these. There are also open or distance learning courses which enable students to study at home.

There are different types of courses students can choose from, including foundation learning, basic skills, vocational work-related courses, GCSES and AS/A levels, and they are available full-time or part-time. Students can find out about FE courses in their area by contacting local schools and colleges, or the local careers or Connexions service.

It is important to find a course that interests the student, but it is just as important to choose a college that can offer the extra support needed because of their impairment or learning difficulty.

The local college will ask for the s139A assessment and assess the student’s needs in the context of their preferred course, its assessment methods, work experience requirements and access to the facilities at college. The college should then organise support appropriate to the student’s needs.

Specialist colleges

If none of the local school or college options can meet a student’s support needs, the local authority may fund a place at a specialist college. They offer a range of courses and may be better equipped to meet the needs of students with complex or low incidence needs.

These colleges are all around the country and students can apply from anywhere, although it may mean travelling. Many are residential and support young people with SEN to live independently. Some specialist colleges have students with different types of impairments while others cater for students with one particular condition or type of disability. It is best to invesitigate the options at each college individually before making a choice.


The Coalition Government has increased the number of apprenticeships available for young people aged 16 to 19 and 19 to 24. Apprenticeships provide a quality accredited programme of employment with part-time training and education. Apprentices gain both qualifications and experience of the world of work.

There are more than 200 different types of apprenticeships available offering over 1,200 job roles within a variety of industry sectors, ranging from accountancy and engineering to veterinary nursing and floristry.

All apprenticeships must include the following elements:

  • a competencies qualification, which demonstrates that the student has the skills to perform the skill, trade or occupation, such as an NVQ
  • a technical knowledge qualification, such as a BTEC National Certificate, which shows that the student has achieved the technical skills, knowledge and understanding of theoretical concepts, and knowledge and understanding of the industry
  • either key skills (such as working in teams, problem solving, communication and using new technology) or functional skills (such as maths and English) qualifications or a GCSE with enhanced content.

Depending on the sector and job role, an apprenticeship can take anything between one and four years to complete. Employers who take on a 16- to 18-year-old apprentice only pay their salary. The Government funds their training.
The Access to Apprenticeship programme, introduced in August 2011, allows students an additional three to six months off-the-job employability training if they are not quite ready to apply for an apprenticeship. This may help some applicants with SEN and/or disabilities compete for vacancies.

Higher education

Higher education is an opportunity to study a subject to a higher level, such as a bachelor’s degree or foundation degree. Many students with disabilities and SEN have a great time joining clubs and societies, sharing ideas with people from different backgrounds and accessing modern IT and laboratory facilities, sports centres and other resources. Greater independence, including for some students leaving home and learning to live by themselves, can also be a key part of the experience. The great advantage of higher education is that it provides a safe and supportive environment in which this can happen.

It is important to think about the value of these experiences when weighing up the costs for 2012, especially in light of the widely publicised increase in tuition fees.

Having a degree also means a lower risk of unemployment. Research from the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) shows that people with disabilities have radically improved job prospects if they continue with their education. At graduate level, disabled people achieve very similar levels of job success to non-disabled people.

Most subjects can be made accessible with the appropriate support. Learners with SEN should not be put off applying to higher education by people assuming they can’t do something because of their impairment.

Universities and colleges provide a wide range of services for students that are separate from the teaching arrangements. These include accommodation, health and wellbeing centres, counselling, careers advice and disabled student services. Student services staff can help with applying for Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) to pay towards additional support costs, and they will arrange for any recommendations arising from a needs assessment to be carried out. Every year, more disabled people consider higher education as an option and the processes to make sure they have an excellent learning experience are well understood and recognised by universities and colleges.

Changes in the pipeline

A number of significant policy changes will be implemented in the next few years, some as soon as April 2012.

The Education Bill is currently going through Parliament. The major changes this will introduce relate to which organisation is legally responsibility for providing careers advice and guidance for young people. At present, this duty falls on local authorities. However, from April 2012, this will change and schools will be required to provide impartial careers advice and guidance for 14- to 16-year-olds.

Many organisations and parliamentarians have expressed concerns that the legislation does not place enough emphasis on the quality, impartiality or qualifications of careers advisers which schools should commission. Young people with disabilities and SEN need expert information and knowledge, both of their disability and support needs and the options available.

In addition, the New Careers Service will replace Connexions with a website, phone and email service, with limited face-to-face contacts with young people. There are concerns that many young people will find that this service does not meet their needs, particularly those with a learning difficulty and/or disability.

The SEN Green Paper, published in March 2011, makes a series of radical proposals to replace the existing system of statements and Section 139A assessments with a single assessment and plan for disabled young people aged 0 to 25. Pathfinder areas have already started piloting various models of delivery, although the legislation will not be in place until 2013.

In principle, parents, young people, local authorities, schools and post-16 providers all agree that a comprehensive progression plan that is person-centred and includes social care, health needs, education options and travel arrangements would avoid the existing duplication of assessments. However, how to make this work in practice is complex and will be put to the test in the pilot areas.

Further information

Tony Stevens is Student Information and Advice Coordinator at Disability Alliance:

The website of the National Association of Specialist Colleges (NATSPEC) includes a database of all specialist colleges:

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