EDUCATION FUNDING GAP FOR THOSE WITH LEARNING DISABILITIES – 22 October 2012

Dr Julian Lewis: It is a pleasure to have secured this important debate on the educational funding gap for 16 to 18-year-olds with special needs. I well remember, back in 2008 – a date that will feature rather less auspiciously later in my remarks – going to Crewe and Nantwich to campaign in the by-election that resulted in the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson), now the Under-Secretary of State for Education, to this House. It is a great pleasure to congratulate him on achieving ministerial office. I understand that this is the first Adjournment debate to which he has replied, and I am sure that he will want to give me as positive a response as possible to the requests that I intend to make.

I am going to focus on two specific areas. The first is the educational funding gap for 16 to 18-year-olds with special needs. The second, which is indirectly related to that, is the funding of what are known as enrichment courses at Further Education colleges for people in that age range and for those who are somewhat older. The two issues arise as a result of similar causes. I have forewarned those in the Minister’s office of what I am about to say, and they have seen the material to which I shall refer.

This material has been supplied to me by a splendid organisation called SCARF, which is in the New Forest. SCARF stands for Supporting special Children and their Relatives and Friends. I pay particular tribute to Sarah Newman, Cathy Cook and Pam Tibbles, among others, who were present at a meeting of the organisation with me and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne). I know that my right hon. Friend would like to join me in participating in the debate tonight, but he is now governed by that particular form of omertà known as 'The Silence of the Whips' – or, in present circumstances, perhaps we should say the silence that most Whips generally observe.

I have learned about these problems first hand from SCARF; I have learned of the views of the principal of Totton College in New Forest East via SCARF; and I have learned of the views of the principal of Brockenhurst College, also in New Forest East, directly. I have also been sent briefings by a number of charities, including the National Autistic Society, Ambitious about Autism and the special needs charity Contact a Family.

I want to talk about the parents’ experiences, some of which will be drawn from SCARF’s recent submission to the Education Select Committee, but I shall refer first to one from a constituent who wrote to me recently about the strains and stresses placed on her family as a result of the funding gap to which I have referred. She writes as follows:

“Our son is 16 years old and has autism. He attends college just 3 days a week. We are paying £120 p/w for private day service provision on the other two days. This has been necessary to ease the extremely high levels of anxiety and stress for our son and ourselves as parents and to provide”

her son

“with continuing development of his personal, social and communication skills.”

This mother goes on to make a very important point:

“Adolescence and transition to Further Education, is a particularly difficult time for a young person with autism or any disability…Our son cannot be left unsupervised to structure and manage his own daily activities, hence the alternative was for myself to give up work and be his ‘buddy’ for those two days each week”

when there is no Further Education available for him.

“This is far from ideal as, aged 16, he does not want to be constantly shadowed by his mother and also having spent a summer holiday this way, the sheer exhaustion and strain has already resulted in breakdown in family relations. I am extremely concerned about the impact the cuts are having on families with disabled young people. I run a parent support group and am deeply saddened by the despair I see on parents’ faces.”

That is from the coal face, as it were.

Penny Mordaunt: I congratulate my hon. Friend – and his constituency neighbour – on securing this debate. He could have read from the sort of letter I have received from many of my constituents. Does he not believe that this policy is very short-sighted because the actual cost to the public purse of not enabling these young adults to reach their full potential will be much more in the longer term?

Dr Lewis: Absolutely. This is one of those classic cases where we are in danger of falling between two stools. There is education funding up to the age of 16 and then adult social funding from the age of 18, but if something goes terribly wrong in that two-year gap, the cost – in terms of both human suffering and additional support from the state resulting from the fallout of something going wrong at that time – will be colossal. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The summary of the position is put forward, as I mentioned earlier, in SCARF’s submission to the Education Select Committee. It describes the overall situation as follows:

“Education funding has been repeatedly cut in recent years”.

Apparently, this started in 2008, but it happened again in 2010 and then in 2011. As a result,

“Further Education colleges can only offer 3 days a week of education to these young people. In addition, Social Services day-care is not available, except in the most extreme cases, until these young people turn 18 and are classed as adults. Consequently, many parents/carers are left to provide the care themselves for their young person on 2 weekdays every week…these young people end up stuck at home with their parent/carer, quickly becoming challenging and disruptive ... the end result is a crisis which then requires significant support from health and social services.”

SCARF wants a guarantee that all young people with special needs or disabilities – I believe that LDD is shorthand for “learning difficulties and disabilities” – should have “the right to full-time education for 5 days a week up to at least the age of 18.”

As I said in response to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), I recognise that it may be necessary for more than one department to be involved. It is possible that those in the education department will say “We simply cannot carry the funding burden for the whole of that period.” Given that this used to be primarily the responsibility of the education department, if the education department is going to shuffle off that responsibility, it surely has a duty to find another department – perhaps one connected with social services – that will take the responsibility on.

As SCARF observes in its submission,

“since September 2008, our local FE colleges have had their funding repeatedly cut”.

It gives a number of examples of the way in which that can affect families. I shall not go into them in detail, because time does not allow me to, but one parent says that her son

“absconded without warning one freezing winter afternoon”

and was knocked down by a car, while another talks of the danger of her son’s lighting fires around the home and the fact that he needs active supervision all the time. Some parents have to give up their jobs, while others strain to find the money to pay people to be the buddies or supervisors of their children on those two days off.

There is no doubt that what was previously a relatively seamless five days a week of provision from childhood to adulthood is no longer available. The explanation, as I understand it, is this. Following the introduction of foundation learning qualifications, the basis was changed from generic or broad learning aims to education that would lead to the achievement of specific qualifications. That is fine for people who are not learning-disadvantaged or disabled, but it obviously has a huge negative impact on that category who are. There was also a reduction in what is called “entitlement funding” from 117 hours to only 30 hours a year, and a restriction excluding what are known as “enrichment” activities from the process. Such activities are not designed to lead to the world of work, but are designed simply to give greater quality to the life of a learning-disabled person.

That brings me to my second topic, which is the question of people who are in an older age category but who were previously able to take part in free enrichment courses on one day a week at local Further Education colleges. Let me give the example – with permission – of my constituent Jessica Snell. She is the daughter of the retired principal of Brockenhurst College. He writes:

“Jessica…is 38 years old and has Down’s syndrome. She lives with her parents and attends a local day centre for 3 days a week. For some time she has attended her local college for one day a week and has gained significantly in her life and social skills. Until 2010 the college was able to draw down funding and remit any fees. This year, she must pay £840 for one day a week for 30 weeks and has no additional income beyond her SDLA”

– severe disability living allowance –

“benefit from which she can pay. Her programme is not work related but she has opted for cooking, drama and craft, all of which add to her independent living skills and enjoyment of life. College also gives her the opportunity to meet and mix with a vibrant community of young people.”

Just as the 16 to 18-year-olds faced a tighter restriction as to whether or not they were going to get qualifications at the end of the process, so the older severe learning-disabled person faces a tighter restriction as to whether or not the course will ever get them into work. If the answer is no in each case, the funding has disappeared, with the consequences I have described.

I began by saying what a pleasure it was to see my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich at the Dispatch Box, and I hope for the far greater pleasure of hearing him say what the Government intend to do to bridge this damaging gap in order to help both young people between the ages of 16 and 18 and people like Jessica, who in their adult years cannot hope to enter the world of work, but can still derive much personal satisfaction and advantage from having one day a week at a Further Education college.

I am sure the Minister will want to tell the House about the Bill on the reform of provision for children and young people with special educational needs, which I believe we will be considering next year. The national special needs charity to which I referred earlier, Contact a Family, has given great support to SCARF’s campaign, and welcomes the draft provisions published last month as far as they go, but it is deeply anxious that they do not guarantee a right to full-time education to those with learning difficulties and disabilities right up to the age of 18. Can the Minister assure us tonight that if his Department is unable single-handedly to fill the gap between these ages, it will work with other Departments so that, between them, we avoid this problem of falling between two stools and we reinstate the situation that used to apply before 2008 and has progressively – or regressively, I should say – deteriorated since then and that we return to the position in which, one way or another, people have five days a week of support between the ages of 16 and 18?

[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for welcoming me to my new role and, I think, for reminding me of those heady days of 2008 in Crewe and Nantwich. More importantly for the purposes of the debate, I thank him for bringing before the House the important question of funding for students aged between 16 and 18 with learning difficulties and disabilities, and in particular those who are being educated in our Further Education colleges. As I have frequently heard my hon. Friend speak in this House, it comes as no surprise to me that he argues this case clearly and with passion on behalf of his constituents who are the parents of just such young learners. He has brought home the very real issues that they face in getting the best education for their children.

Although I am still relatively new in my post as Minister in the Department for Education, I have already become aware of the responsibility that rests with me for these young people. My Department has already set out our commitment in our May 2012 document “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability – progress and next steps.” That approach follows on from the proposals in the earlier Green Paper. Our proposals, which we have drawn up into draft legislation that is currently being scrutinised, are designed to move away from the disjointed, labyrinthine and label-focused current system my hon. Friend described to a more seamless, supported and outcomes-focused system. In doing so, we seek to offer real hope for young people with learning difficulties and disabilities, and to help them meet their desires and aspirations, in the same way that other young people can.

The pressures are particularly acute at periods of transition, such as when people move from primary into secondary education and then from compulsory education into further or higher education. The concern for parents, as has been so eloquently expressed by my hon. Friend, is whether their children are getting the level of education and support they need, and whether appropriate funding is available to make sure that that happens. Although his constituents point to this concern as having begun in the 2008-09 academic year for the colleges in his area, which my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) also represents, we know that it is a concern in other parts of the country as well. It is, of course, right that parents expect to receive an appropriate level of provision for their children’s needs, and so it is right that local authorities and colleges work closely with parents and the young people themselves to ensure that their needs are being properly met at all times.

My Department funds local authorities to make provision and support available for young people with learning difficulties and disabilities in a way that allows for five days a week learning where that is appropriate. The funding behind that has not declined, and we are not changing the overall funding for schools and high-needs pupils and students aged up to 25. The amount we allocate for these children and young people through additional learning support – a key feature – has increased year on year. The amount of high-level additional learning support we make available for 16 to 24-year-olds has, in fact, increased by more than a quarter in the past two years, from £97 million in 2010-11 to £124.9 million in 2012-13. Additional funding has been made available from the learners with learning difficulties and disabilities placement budget for students with high levels of learning difficulty and/or disability placed in FE colleges. That has also increased by a quarter, from £24.8 million to £35 million in the same time period.

I know from a visit I made last week to Hereward College in Coventry that the one thing that most young people aged 16 to 18 want is to have, as far as possible, the same opportunities and life chances as the rest of their peer group. For some young people, who may have learning difficulties and/or disabilities but are quite capable of undertaking unsupervised independent study on their own, a course involving three days a week of supervised learning in an FE college will be wholly appropriate to their needs.

However, for others – this touches on the case that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East cited – it will simply not be enough, particularly for those with more profound or limiting disabilities. So where it is clear that a young person would have difficulty managing their learning in a three-day-a-week setting with periods of unsupervised study, we would expect a programme to be offered over a longer period each week. That would and should be accompanied by additional support for learning, the funding for which I have set out, and support outside formal lessons, to be provided as appropriate.

Of course, it is not the business of government to tell autonomous FE colleges how to arrange the courses they provide or how to set their timetables. By the same token, it is essential that the provision on offer in these colleges is right for each individual. Nor is it true that all FE colleges have looked at the overall funding available to them from their local authority and decided to reduce the length of courses they offer to their students; many have worked together to find innovative solutions. For example, Luton local authority has funded a “broker” to put together programmes for its young people with highest needs, combining education, health and social care as appropriate. It has generated new types of day provision with very high support functions, taking on a new role as a commissioner of services. Neighbouring Hertfordshire has operated with two “brokers” since 2006, but is now attempting to merge the role into personal adviser roles. Both Hertfordshire and Luton were part of an original east of England regional initiative Improving Choice, which developed a “person-centred” approach, aiming to increase availability and access to support for study within their local area.

Under the current funding approach, the provision that young people with learning difficulties and disabilities receive will depend on what the local authority has set out in the learning difficulty assessment drawn up for them. This is designed to identify the young person’s educational needs, and describe the provision that will be made available to them that will be suitable and appropriate to their needs. A local authority should not be drawing up a learning difficulty assessment that recommends a three-day-a-week course in a local FE college where that would not be appropriate to the young person’s needs.

Dr Lewis: It seems to me that the Minister is saying that things ought to be sorted out between the local authority and the college. Brockenhurst College, to which I referred, is regarded a beacon college and both Mike Snell, a parent and former principal, and Di Roberts, the present principal, have been awarded the CBE for their efforts, but with the best will in the world they cannot bridge the gap by themselves. I know that Hampshire county council – I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it is highly competent – is doing its best to help but it cannot bridge the gap caused by the restriction in the definition of available funding that I described.

Mr Timpson: Of course we are concerned when provision is not being met in any individual situation and I will be happy, as always, to look more closely at the circumstances mentioned by my hon. Friend. If a child has an identified need that is not being met through the learning difficulty assessment, that shows exactly why we need the reforms we will introduce in primary legislation next year.

The information set out in a learning difficulty assessment is covered by statutory guidance, but the guidance does not prescribe in close detail what can and cannot be included in each and every case.

Nic Dakin: I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing the debate. The Government’s direction of travel is that more post-16 funding will come through local authorities as part of the seamless approach, which is to be welcomed in many ways. How will he ensure that local authorities have the right capacity to do that job, which they have not done hitherto? In cases where many local authorities have to work with one college, how will he ensure that there is a co-ordinated rather than fragmented approach on behalf of the young people who will all attend the same college?

Mr Timpson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the important question of how to get the most out of the available resources. We are under no illusions about the tight economic situation which means we have to find more from less. That is why the reforms we will introduce in the new year will focus on joint commissioning between education and health so that we can try to pool our resources more effectively; on putting a local offer on the table so that parents can see close up what services are available to them and get as much accountability as possible from the local authority and health services; and on ensuring that we identify as early as possible the needs of each individual child. That will mean that the necessary work can be done as early as possible, preventing unnecessary work in the future that could have been avoided if provision had been offered earlier. Those are all reasons why the reforms, which I shall explain in more detail in the three minutes I have left, will make an important contribution to a more effective child and young person-centred system.

Our proposed special educational needs reforms will improve the situation for this group of young people in general. More specifically, our proposed new education, health and care plans will focus much more on the needs and aspirations of the young person and will be drawn up in consultation with them. It is important to note that following an assessment of the young person’s needs and negotiation with them and their parents, the plans will set out their education, health and social care needs not up to the age of 16 or 18 but up to the age of 25. That is a new statutory protection for young adults in Further Education.

Let me move quickly on to the second issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East. If I do not cover every point he has raised, I will be happy to write to him in more detail to ensure that he has a full and considered reply. Access to FE provision for adults with learning difficulties is rightly the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, but it is clear to me that there are issues of real concern here that my hon. Friend has helpfully raised. The Government prioritise funding where its impact is greatest on outcomes, and maximising that is part of the Government’s agenda to support people into employment. We fully fund units and qualifications for unemployed people in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance and employment support allowance, depending on what they need to help them enter and stay in work. In 2012–13 we are investing over £3.8 billion for more than 3 million adult training places through the Skills Funding Agency.

I hear the concerns that my hon. Friend raises in relation to specific funding streams to support enrichment and further qualifications. There have been some changes to the way that they have been calculated, and that may have had an impact on some individual college budgets. I will be able to provide him with a fuller picture of the effect that that has had. I hope also to provide him with some reassurance that we understand the importance of learning not just educationally, but from a nurturing perspective for all young people. That is very much at the forefront of the reforms that we will be taking through the House in the coming months.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this extremely important issue, and I look forward to being able to provide him with a fuller reply in due course that sets out all the issues that he has raised.]