In June, my daughter attended a demonstration outside the houses of parliament. Sarah, who has Down’s syndrome, travelled by coach from Somerset with fellow students and staff from her college, where she met 80 other young people to launch a campaign highlighting the need for educational equality for people with disabilities.
Sarah has been lucky. Having been well supported by the London borough of Haringey, she attended a mainstream school, a sixth-form college and recently graduated from Foxes Academy – a residential catering college and training hotel for young people with learning disabilities. She hopes to become a waitress. But not every young person with physical or learning disabilities is so fortunate; many face a postcode lottery, particularly when it comes to post-16 education.
There are about 70 specialist further education colleges in the UK – most offering residential care – but places can cost more than £30,000 a year, and over £150,000 for students with complex needs. Many young people and their families face a long battle to secure funding for their child to attend such a college – particularly (as is often the case) when the one that best serves their needs is in another local authority.
Young people with physical or learning disabilities face particular challenges and difficulties with education and employment. While it may be possible for them to work and live independently, they sometimes take longer to learn new skills and need support in doing so. Specialist colleges do a huge amount of work in helping young people to prepare for the next steps in their lives.
During her three years as a student at Foxes Academy, Sarah worked in the training hotel, learning skills such as food hygiene, housekeeping and cooking, while living independently in supported housing with seven other “learners”. She is aware she has been lucky, and now wants to help other young people in her situation.
That is why Sarah and her friends are supporting the A Right Not a Fightcampaign, which calls for students with a physical or learning disability to have the choices most young people take for granted – such as choosing a further education college that best meets their needs. The idea for the campaign was developed by a group of student representatives who attend specialist colleges, with the support of NatSpec (The National Association of Specialist Colleges), and has been launched ahead of the new Children and Families Act, due to come into effect next month.
While the aspirations of the Children and Families Act – greater educational choice for students with a learning difficulty or disability, encouragement of education, up to the age of 25, and closer working between health, education and social care professionals – are spot on, those working in the sector fear recent changes to funding arrangements for school-leavers with high levels of need will prevent young people and their families from making the most of the opportunities promised.
While young people and their families have always had to jump through hoops to get funded places at specialist colleges, the situation has been made much worse by new funding arrangements introduced last year. Local authorities no longer have to “ringfence” money for school-leavers with high levels of need (those identified as needing financial support for their education that is likely to exceed around £10,000 a year). Instead, they have a budget for all children and young people with high levels of need up to the age of 25 – and every local authority seems to have a different way of assessing and meeting need.
Many now insist that young people consider every possible local option before they can look at a specialist provider. Some local authorities have introduced blanket policies of not placing young adults in colleges outside the area. Others only offer short-term financial support and will not agree, in advance, to fund the total length of some courses.
I recently heard of one student with complex physical and learning difficulties who was turned down by five local providers, before being allowed to look around a specialist college. His mother says: “He ended up feeling like a second-class citizen.” Another parent, who was initially told the local authority would only fund a place for her son locally, and fought for two years to get her son a place at National Star College in Cheltenham, said she felt like her son had been made to feel like a “prisoner in his own county”.
The result is often short-term economies, at the expense of long-term savings to the public purse. A 2011 National Audit Office report showed that equipping a young person with moderate learning difficulties with the skills to live semi-independently, rather than in fully supported housing, could reduce their lifetime support costs by about £1m.
Sarah and her friends do not want to be reliant on benefits. They want, like everyone else, to be given the chance to prove themselves in the workplace. And this is deeply embedded in the ethos of Foxes Academy, where 88% of learners have found employment on leaving and 85% are living semi-independently (based on learners from the past five years).
Like Foxes, which is focused on catering and hospitality, many specialist colleges have distinct areas of expertise – the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford is working with young people with visual impairments and National Star College in Cheltenham supporting those with physical disabilities, for example. These colleges also have the resources to support young people with complex physical and learning disabilities to do GCSEs, A-levels and gain other academic qualifications.
We have come a long way from the days when children with Down’s syndrome were written off at birth, denied an education when children and deprived of some medical interventions as adults. As Sarah’s experience has shown, there is now the opportunity of a life fulfilled, and specialist colleges have a vital role to play. They empower young people with learning difficulties or disabilities to take control of their lives – particularly in the residential setting where living away from home prepares them for life beyond the family home. This arrangement is, after all, the norm for most university students in halls of residence and shared houses.
Apart from the experience of living communally and making many friends, Sarah has also found love at Foxes – her long-term boyfriend, Daniel, who has autism, is a delightful young man and a true athlete. He has been selected for the Great Britain’s Special Olympic cycling team to go to Los Angeles in 2015, and Sarah has supported him in various competitions.
It was impossible not to be moved by the dignity, confidence and earnestness of the students outside Westminster as they talked proudly of their achievements and their hopes for the future. Sarah is now on the brink of a new life, about to move into supported accommodation with three other young women, in a house about half an hour away. I recently told her that we would always be there to help her, we all loved her dearly and she could ring us any time if she needed us. She looked at me quizzically and replied: “I know that, Dad … I love you too, but I don’t need you.”