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Wales' new ALN system is failing learners with complex needs

Kirsten Jones
December 7, 2023

When learners with complex learning needs are ready to transition from special schools, mainstream further education (FE) colleges may not always provide the suitable environment or expertise needed to further develop their skills and knowledge for post-education lives. To ensure all learners have access to further education and training, it’s crucial to have different providers with relevant specialisms. Establishing colleges specifically designed to meet the needs of learners with complex learning needs is essential for an inclusive FE system.

Currently in Wales, ambitious education reforms are underway. These include the implementation of a radically revised national curriculum, a new Additional Learning Needs (ALN) system, and an overhaul how tertiary education is funded and monitored.

Wales has a long-standing practice of devolving the responsibility for further education and training of learners with complex needs to the specialist FE sector. This includes commissioning funding, and monitoring learner progress through a centralised government department. However, as part of the ALN reform, responsibilities for meeting the FE needs of learners with complex ALN, who cannot be accommodated by mainstream FE colleges, are set to be devolved to local authorities. Additionally, the statutory guidance in the ALN Code makes it exceedingly difficult for these learners to access further education at all.

Unlike in England, where under the Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) arrangements, a preference of FE provider can be expressed, learners in Wales are afforded no such privileges. Regardless of their aspirations or needs, the default position is that all learners progress to their regional mainstream FE college. Only after being effectively rejected can they being the precarious journey to securing a placement at specialist FE college. To secure a place at such a college, local authorities must assess a ‘reasonable need’ for education, which makes them liable for any subsequent commissioning and funding. Furthermore, the ALN Code is notoriously ambiguous on what further education means for a young person with complex ALN. It's unclear whether a two-year entitlement to education and training is a post-school or a post-16 privilege.

We anticipate that the extraordinary pressures facing local authorities will lead to interpretations of the Code resulting in fewer learners being able to access FE. Those unable to have their needs met by the mainstream system will transition directly from school to day service provision, while their less-disabled peers will have uncontested access to ‘independent living skills’ programmes at their local FE college.

The Welsh Government, unlike Estyn, His Majesty’s Inspectorate for Education and Training in Wales, is reluctant to acknowledge specialist colleges as part of the post-16 educational landscape. This is exemplified by the exclusion of specialist colleges from the auspices of the newly created Commission for Tertiary Education and Research. This body is tasked with overseeing further education, higher education, apprenticeships, sixth forms and Welsh-government funded research and innovation.

The Welsh Government is reluctant to acknowledge specialist colleges as part of the post-16 educational landscape. Quote

We can see the lack of recognition apparent in Estyn’s recent review of the new ALN system that concluded ‘local authorities are not able to make informed decisions about the full range of additional learning provision across the post-16 sector, when they know so little about the [specialist] sector and what it provides’.

Specialist colleges, though comparable to mainstream FE colleges but on a much smaller scale, are not bound by same regulations. Organisationally, they range from third sector not-for-profit-charities to corporate companies, and this diversity is where at least one issue hindering equal access to further education lies. Despite the fact that all learners in specialist colleges are entirely state-funded, and the Welsh Government effectively devolves responsibility for their further education to the sector, there is a perception of specialist colleges as entities that drain money from ‘the system’ and the ‘Wales pound’. Rightly or wrongly, specialist colleges are tarred with same brush that has led the Welsh Government, as part of its co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru, to introduce legislation aimed at eliminating profit from the care of looked-after children.

Labelling specialist colleges uniformly as detrimental is shortsighted and ultimately discriminatory against learners who need them. However, this is not the only barrier to an inclusive education system in Wales. What is conspicuously absent is any desire to understand the value that aspirational, target-driven, highly personalised FE programmes that prepare learners for adult life. Welsh Government does very little to evaluate the quality of outcomes for its learners with ALN in further education. It collects no data whatsoever on the post-college destinations of learners in mainstream colleges enrolled in independent living skills programmes and very limited information on those who leave specialist colleges.

We believe that investing in high quality specialist FE programmes can reduce overall expenditure, and that at this time of major reform, Wales is well-placed to introduce evaluation mechanisms to identify how stakeholders can reduce costs to the public purse.

Learners with complex ALN are being alienated and ultimately discriminated against due to the FE provision they require. Meanwhile, we can’t help but note the irony when looking over the border at England, where a staggering 96% of local authority decisions are being overturned at SEND Tribunals. It is with despair that we question how much of the Welsh pound will be spent on legal fees for learners whose families have the resilience and resources to fight a system clearly stacked against them.

Kirsten Jones 2 200x200

Kirsten Jones is the Welsh Policy Officer for the National Association of Specialist Colleges.

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