From education to employment

FE and the SEND Review

Emma Sanderson, Managing Director, Options Autism, discusses the current challenges faced by young people with SEND in finding appropriate FE provision, the role of specialist colleges, and the implications for FE provision in the Government’s SEND Review

The sector remains quite stark – compared to their peers, young people with special educational needs are 25% less likely to be in sustained employment at age 27, and more likely destined to become long-term NEET (not in education, employment or training). We must support more positive futures for these young people who are not presently afforded the same choices as their neurotypical peers. We need equality in further and higher education.

Although the number of students with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND), being educated in mainstream FE settings is rising rapidly, with local authority data reporting an 11.5% increase, from 46,786 students in 2019, to 52,168 in 2020, there is still a continuing need for specialist FE provision. The number of young people currently educated in specialist FE colleges has hardly changed for the last 5 years – approximately 6,000 students are catered for by 133 specialist colleges, of which 113 were funded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) in 2020/21.

Progression rates for young people with SEND

Progression rates for young people with SEND, lag well behind other nineteen year olds. According to the latest Government figures, in 2021/22 just 18% of young people with learning disabilities and/or disabilities (LLDD) participated in Further Education or Skills Training. In Higher Education the numbers are even lower, with just 8.7% of young people with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or Statement of SEN, progressing to Higher Education by age 19, compared to 48.6% for those with no SEN.

While both specialist and mainstream colleges provide programmes of learning designed to meet the needs of students with SEND; specialist colleges provide for those with more complex needs which cannot be effectively resourced in mainstream provision. These students require multi-disciplinary specialist input and expertise, and would struggle in a busy mainstream environment.

What must the SEND Review also address

The Government’s recent SEND Review; ‘Right support, right place, right time’ aimed at improving outcomes for children and young people with SEND, is very welcome, but if specialist colleges are to continue to provide a crucial role in a future SEND system, the SEND Review must also address current challenges:

  • Misinterpretations about the nature and status of specialist colleges, results in some local authorities (LAs), parents and carers, not considering them an option alongside  schools or colleges as potential providers. Specialist colleges tend to be regarded as ‘private’, and excluded from the Local Offer. It is important that those involved in SEND and high needs funding, recognise that both mainstream colleges and specialist colleges are independent of local authority control in terms of the SEND system.
  • Specialist colleges are sometimes perceived as a ‘last resort’. Placements are made following disputes or appeals, rather than recognised as the appropriate provision for the young person who requires it, and planned in a timely manner. The statutory deadline of March 31st is routinely missed for the majority of learners coming into specialist colleges.
  • Change is more likely to be achieved if government departments, LAs and regulatory bodies  used the term ‘specialist college’ alongside ‘mainstream college’, rather than the confusing multitude of terms that are currently in place.
  • As part of a future vision, specialist colleges should be positioned as an integral part of the FE sector, not simply and add on to secure placement for a young person at the last minute. There needs to be a clear set of policies for mainstream and specialist FE, that sit outside of those for mainstream and special schools

Positives in the review

There are positives in the review: the ambition to apply coherent standards to alternative provision; local inclusion plans to be overseen by the DfE; and banded price tariffs for high needs funding. But the proposals miss an opportunity to improve the way funding is fairly and properly allocated for students, particularly those whose needs are real but less pronounced – often the case with autistic young people.


Although the DfE’s consultation highlights the poorer outcomes young people with SEND achieve throughout their education, it does not contain any recognition of the needs of young people, nor any explicit support for FE.

Of the £2.2 billion increase in high needs funding in 2020/21 compared to 2014/15, only £175 million went on post-16 provision.

Without the chance to fulfil their potential and aspirations, access the quality of life and satisfaction that comes with working, and giving back and feeling part of their community, there is an increased risk these young people will become isolated, with all the accompanying anxiety, depression and mental health challenges. For autistic young people, who have experienced the security of a structured school day, life without routine and purpose is very challenging. Let’s ensure we give every young person the opportunity to pursue further learning.

By Emma Sanderson, Managing Director, Options Autism

Emma Sanderson is Managing Director at Options Autism, a specialist provider of education and care for autistic children, young people and adults and those with complex needs, part of OFG.

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  1. An insightful read. In full agreement that consideration for FE provision for young people with SEN should be a right and not something parents have to fight for. Mr G