Making the Send Reforms Work

The Department for Education has commissioned a consortium, led by the Education and Training Foundation, to build the capacity of staff and institutions across the further education (FE) and skills sector to deliver the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) reforms set out in the 2014 Children and Families Act. As part of this work, SQW conducted a needs analysis of the FE and skills sector with regard to implementation of the SEND reforms; the key findings are discussed below.

Ensuring all learners with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) – including those without an EHC (Education, Health and Care) plan – receive the best possible experience is undoubtedly large and complex. But that is what the FE and skills sector must now do to meet the very necessary and welcome reforms contained in the Children and Families Act 2014.


Recent Ofsted reports indicate the sector is moving in the right direction. Where full inspection reports, published since September 2015, included the new grades for SEND, two-thirds of providers received grades of 1 or 2 for their high-needs provision. Nevertheless, this is going to be a huge challenge for the sector, in at least two respects.

First, there are a lot of learners with SEND. In 2014/15 there were 2.6m adult learners aged 19-25 in the FE and skills sector in England, of whom 0.42m (16 per cent), had a learning difficulty and/or disability. Moreover, the number of 16 and 17 year olds with SEND known to local authorities in England in 2015 was 45,280. The real challenge is each learner has an individual set of needs and aspirations that will require a range of different provision and support.

Secondly, the FE and skills sector itself is also extremely diverse. It's not just the large number and variety of institutions, but the wide variety of roles in each setting, from teacher to assessor, manager to administrator, governor to careers advisor, teaching assistant to lecturer. Staff working in the sector are often part-time or self-employed. This diversity complicates the design and delivery of interventions to both build capacity and develop the workforce.

Sixteen and 17 year olds with SEN are not performing as well as their peers in maths and English. This has become even more prominent with the new obligation for all learners to achieve a GCSE C or above. Only one-in-three (33 per cent) achieved five+ A*-C including English and Maths by age 19 in 2014/15 compared to almost four in five (78 per cent) of pupils without SEN.

The SEND reforms also give particular prominence to preparing learners for adulthood and gaining independence through, for example, paid work. Learners need support and reasonable adjustment so they can access a route, or other pathway, to employment. In some cases this may involve offering a 'transition year' which could include a supported internship and/or an extended work placement. Careers guidance has also been specifically identified as an area in which the FE and skills sector is also not yet meeting its obligations.

Ofsted has also found that recording and monitoring activity is weak both for individual learners and the system as a whole. The recording of progress and achievements for individual learners is critical and monitoring provision overall must be implemented. But this goes beyond the boundaries of each institution. FE and skills providers and other organisations, particularly local authorities, must work together more effectively by sharing information and delivering more coordinated and appropriate support.

But despite this, there is an eagerness across the sector to support the implementation of the SEND reforms, and a willingness to learn from the successful practical experience of others to embed whole organisational change. Several people we spoke to highlighted the long-time 'Cinderella' status of the FE and skills sector, which has translated into under-funding, including for workforce development. This investment by the Department for Education is clearly very welcome.

One person we spoke to believes that most providers were missing the opportunity to exploit assistive technology for the benefit of low-needs learners because of the focus on high-needs learners through EHC plans. And those with highly-specific needs, may not have their needs met because of poor understanding of their circumstances and a dearth of specialist qualified staff.

Many FE colleges have a senior leader with strategic responsibility for SEND learners, but this does not always translate into whole-organisational strategies for addressing SEND learners' needs being built into the structures, policies and processes of organisations. SEND is often still an 'add-on' rather than mainstream.

Other reform programmes, ranging from GCSE resits and apprenticeships to Area-Based Reviews, take priority for senior leaders' time and attention, often leaving learners with SEND low down a long list of pressing issues. Perhaps this time of such uncertainty for the FE and skills sector might actually be the right moment to embed new SEND practices across whole organisations?

Does this reflect your own experiences? What steps have you taken to address the needs of your learners with SEND? And how might a Workforce Development Programme work best for you and your institution? 

The full needs analysis is available to download here: Needs analysis guidance for ETF consortium