2 May 2023

The struggle of specialist FE colleges in government SEND plans

Natspec's senior policy manager Ruth Perry sets out how the specialist college estate has been degraded without adequate capital funding which is why, she argues, the sector needs a dedicated money pot...

Government once again reminds us in the SEND and AP Improvement Plan that it is investing £2.6bn over three years for capital programmes to deliver new places and improve existing provision for children and young people with SEND. Good news for specialist FE colleges, surely? Well, no – not really. These funds are administered by local authorities who have a track record of spending SEND capital funding almost exclusively on school-aged children. Recent analysis by Special Needs Jungle found that less than one per cent of the previous round of SEND capital funding had made its way into FE and early years settings combined.

But hold on, you might be thinking, there’s a dedicated FE Capital Transformation Fund. Surely specialist FE colleges could be making use of the £1.5bn set aside for upgrading the FE estate? Unfortunately, despite being entirely state-funded, specialist colleges are not eligible for the Transformation Fund which is restricted to general FE colleges, designated institutions and sixth form colleges. 

Specialist FE colleges are having to rely on an average of £20,000 per year of capital funding derived from the annual devolved formula capital (DFC) and school condition allocations (SCA). These funds are intended to contribute to the upkeep of buildings, rather than to enable significant improvement works or new builds. And while schools can top up their annual allocations via bids to the school condition improvement fund, there is no equivalent pot for specialist colleges. 

A 2021 survey of Natspec member colleges found that 53 per cent of colleges had buildings in need of repair either urgently (18 per cent) or within the next two years (35 per cent)
Ruth Perry, Senior Policy Manager of Natspec

Nearly all specialist colleges need repairs in next 8 years 

It’s now over ten years since government allocated dedicated capital funding to specialist FE colleges (a £15m fund over two years that benefitted only a small number of colleges). In the meantime, college buildings are falling into disrepair, improvement plans are on hold and capacity-building projects remain stuck on the drawing board. 

A 2021 survey of Natspec member colleges found that 53 per cent of colleges had buildings in need of repair either urgently (18 per cent) or within the next two years (35 per cent). Ninety-six per cent of colleges said that their buildings would need repairs within 10 years. Colleges described failing boilers, leaking roofs and gutters, draughty single-glazed windows and modular buildings reaching the end of their lives. They also explained how the existing configuration of teaching spaces was limiting access for learners in wheelchairs and those requiring a range of bulky equipment to hand. In some cases, recently acquired buildings were still awaiting the re-fits needed to accommodate learners with more complex needs.

Environmental and curriculum improvements are being held back with colleges unable, for example, to introduce accessible gym or outdoor equipment or to develop their vocational offer through the addition of new catering facilities or cafes, garages for car maintenance, or greenhouses. For some, expansion to meet local demand for highly specialist places or co-locating provision with a general FE college to enable greater integration for learners, remains a pipe dream without the capital investment required. 

Others have had to rely on donations, fundraising and use of reserves, none of which is sustainable.

Government should ensure learners are not disadvantaged

This is not an equitable way to fund specialist FE colleges who provide for some of the most vulnerable learners within the state-funded education system. In the SEND and AP Improvement Plan, government promises ‘to work with the sector to review the way the Department for Education defines and manages specialist further education and to consider what changes could be made to reinforce [specialist colleges’] integrated position within the wider further education sector.’ 

One sure fire way would be to announce a new capital improvement fund dedicated to ESFA-funded specialist FE colleges. They could follow that up by making specialist FE colleges eligible for future FE capital funding rounds. 

That way, government could help ensure that learners with the most complex needs are no longer disadvantaged by the poor quality of their physical learning environment or treated less favourably than their peers in general FE colleges.

Share your details and we’ll be in touch