What future for school leavers with special educational needs?

Out in the wilderness without a map, compass or guide.

We are all fleshy bags of personality, physicality, abilities, preferences, talents, joys and pains. We are all people. Each of us has a career, a pathway through life that we might make or have made for us, consciously or not. It might be a school career, a college career, a care career, an occupational career, a leisure career, a health career, a sports career…

There are as many pathways to the future as there are people. Generalisations and assumptions are very dangerous. What makes sense for one person will make nonsense for another. It’s why a professional careers adviser will ask so many open questions and listen so hard to the answers. There is no typical young person; certainly no typical young person with special educational needs. It’s why my job is so fascinating…

Although each pathway is unique, the map might sometimes lead us through the same places, processes and bottlenecks; the same challenges and conflicts; similar experiences, stages and institutions. Some areas of a map might be incomplete, unexplored or unfamiliar; there may well be quicksand and dragons out there; your satnav might be unreliable and the landscape may be changing but it’s not sensible to begin the adventure without one. And best not go alone.

The career pathways for young people with special educational needs are – in theory – the same as those for any young person. All the options are open, you will be told. There are barriers to achievement that need to be removed or overcome but the mechanisms to do this are in place. You just need the information, advice and ongoing guidance. You can consider your professionally qualified and experienced careers adviser your personal tracker and guide…but first you have to find one…

The Disruption of Careers Information, Advice and Guidance Services

We are in a very peculiar period.

Until 2010 careers advice was delivered through Connexions, a service provided by privatised careers companies working under contract to local authorities to diverse and demanding targets. The service had been underfunded and was of varying quality. In the private sector managers sometimes built their own careers by meeting tick-box targets and coming in under budget rather than necessarily enabling their highly qualified and experienced staff to open up young people’s motivation and potential. Often young people said Connexions was great. Sometimes they said it was “rubbish”. Something had to change. Connexions was capable of reform and redirection. There was still a valuable baby in the bathwater but something had to change.

Then there was an election…and the bath was tipped over.

On the basis that the experience was “patchy”, one of the very first things the Coalition Government did was cut the funding to Connexions. This resulted in the redundancy of almost all the professionally qualified careers advisers that worked with young people in schools, colleges and the labour market, including their managers. The publicly available national Connexions online careers information database was closed down. The networks of professional information gathering and exchange, training and support disappeared almost overnight.

The government then went further; removing the duty to provide careers guidance from local authorities and passing that duty to schools, without providing any funding to provide it. As a result we now have a splintered, varyingly qualified private sector careers guidance marketplace dominated by those former – remember “patchy”? – private sector providers along with a fair share of charlatans, simplistic life-coaches and productivity gurus. (Beware!).

Careers England (what the BBC refers to as the careers “trade organisation”) reports that 83% of mainstream schools had reduced careers guidance from the level provided by Connexions.

Where schools – mostly mainstream schools – have bought in private sector careers companies or individuals their contracts often specifically exclude work with pupils with Statements of SEN because they often have no staff with relevant expertise and experience. This is apparently acceptable, even when we have the Equality Act…

The government’s new National Careers Service provides a website and telephone call centre service for people over 18 with the possibility of three face to face interviews for those who qualify, where the service is available at all. Here’a the link https://nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk You decide whether it is any use to young people with SEN or their parents…

Making the best of the shambles for young people with special educational needs:

Local authorities continue to have responsibilities to help and encourage (e.g. through targeted youth support for gang members etc.) vulnerable young people and those who are not in education, employment or training (the infamous NEETS).

Local authorities also retain the duty to provide a representative (usually one of the very few remaining specialist SEN Connexions advisers under a variety of different job titles) to attend the Year 9 (and where possible subsequent) annual reviews for young people with SEN – where they can contribute to Transition Planning – and to provide Learning Difficulty Assessments to send to colleges of further education for young people whose Statements are about to lapse as they leave the school sector.

Luckily, many local authority managers also recognise the nonsense of their specialist staff contributing to meaningful Transition plans without providing ongoing professional, impartial, careers information, advice and guidance to young people with SEN and their parents and are committed to continuing to provide that service. So some of us go on meeting the young people and their parents – and working with schools, social services, colleges, educational psychologists, parent partnership services and other professionals – to help each individual young person find their way through the wilderness with its panels, assessments, funding bunkers and crises.

One of the risks of writing this article is that some politician will notice and sack us all…

Its time to get political:

The national Home/Host Agreements – under which pupils in residential or out-county schools were served by the Connexions service local to their school – has collapsed. Local authority staff will only work with their own residents. Some authorities have a policy of not allowing staff to travel to schools outside their area for reviews and where they do allow this appointments often clash and apologies have to be sent. It should be recognised that often too few staff were retained from Connexions for local authorities to meet their responsibilities.

Not all local authorities are enlightened. Some have forbidden their staff to give careers advice, information and guidance and have demanded that they restrict themselves to a diet of filling in forms and “turnupism” (making sure the authority is not challenged for not turning up at reviews). Moreover, some local authorities are exerting considerable managerial pressure to compromise the professional impartiality and independence of Connexions advisers; pressing them to distort their advice by recommending less expensive solutions e.g. favouring less than adequately supported local college courses against independent specialist colleges.

A challenge remains with regard to mainstream schools. The former Specialist SEN Connexions advisers retained by the local authorities – sometimes one or two people per authority – previously worked mainly in local authority special schools. The advisers that worked in mainstream schools have all gone in the redundancies. Parents of young people with SEN in mainstream schools might like to ask who is providing the services above for their children now.

Only 40% of the cuts to local authorities have gone through. 60% remain. The Prime Minister warns of tough decisions. It cannot be long before a Minister makes a speech questioning why the public purse is paying fees of £60,000 per annum to educate young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities on three year post-19 courses in residential specialist colleges when they have no prospect of making any economic contribution to Aspiration Britain. And so the rolling back of opportunity for young people with SEN begins – with what sounds like a common-sense, logical argument in very difficult times

In the course of the next year or so Sarah Tether’s white paper on the Reform of Provision for Children and Young People With Special Needs will pass through parliament into law. A new Code of Practice will follow. Pupils have the professional careers information advice and guidance that remains – in spite of the government – largely as a result of the last Code of Practice. Its place in the new one is as yet uncertain…

As always, to help your child most effectively you may have to consider legal action at times. IN THE NEAR FUTURE YOU WILL ALMOST CERTAINLY HAVE TO GET POLITICALLY INVOLVED. JOIN SOMETHING. SPEAK UP.

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