Thank you Zoe [Hancock] - it is great to be with you all this morning. You’ll be pleased to hear that I won’t be talking about flood defences, or roads. Instead, I’ll be focusing on the most important challenge that we face - that is support for students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
It’s great to see a few familiar faces from the Lancaster House reception we held in September to celebrate the launch of the SEN and disability reforms.
The approach we’ve taken has made a real difference, and it was excellent to look at the progress made to date as well as discuss the substantial amount of work that lies ahead with implementation.
I also believe today will be my Association of Colleges (AoC) conference hat-trick - so apologies to those who turned up hoping to see me off the menu!
But today is a chance to consider how far we’ve come over the past few years.
When I spoke to you last December, the Children and Families Bill was about to be enshrined in law. I said to you we could rise to the challenge, and through endeavour, I want to make this vision a reality.
So firstly a thank you for everything you’ve done to help us shape and improve these reforms, the biggest to special educational needs for 30 years.
We made sure we consulted closely with the AoC and many others, and I hope you came away from that experience feeling that we listened to you. Not just in terms of the policy, but also the practicalities that if implemented will make a really positive impact to many children and families’ lives.
Fast forward 12 months and we’re now moving into that all-important phase of delivering these reforms on the ground and ensuring they improve the prospects of some of our most vulnerable children and disadvantaged young people.
Role of further education sector
And I’m in no doubt that the FE sector has a pivotal role to play in bridging childhood and greater independence for hundreds of thousands of children.
Your work is the culmination of efforts, from the early years onwards, to give young people the same support and opportunities as we want for our own children.
These are essential ingredients in a successful transition into adulthood - having that clear sense of aspiration whatever their start in life.
Yes, we want students with SEND to enjoy their course, make friends and feel safe in the college environment - but what about what happens next?
What about their chances of getting a job, going on to further study, living independently?
You help cross that divide between education and independence, something which seems like a simple step but often isn’t.
Our reforms build on this vital role, giving you an even greater opportunity to make a difference.
That’s why I’m pleased to see that - 3 months after these reforms kicked in - you’re seizing that opportunity with enthusiasm and ambition, as reflected in today’s attendance.
According to a survey carried out jointly by the association and my department, there have been some really positive developments on the ground.
The survey results
Most of you have got buy-in from your management team, recruiting senior colleagues as SEND leads.
95% of respondents will be running tailored study programmes next year, matching their students’ strengths to a programme that suits their abilities.
And more than three-quarters of colleges say they are working closely with their local authority to deliver the reforms, leading to some excellent practice.
The Isle of Wight council, for example, asked their Young Inspectors to pull the EHC document apart to see if it’s up to scratch. One of the young inspectors noted that the font was too small for them - they couldn’t make sense of it. Another struggled with some of the language.
This kind of feedback and approach could only come from involving students themselves - and it’s precisely that sort of input that our reforms aim to encourage.
Input that focuses on what works and on those all-important outcomes. That’s heard and acted on by services across health, education and social care as they collaborate ever more closely. And that shapes support from birth to 25, ensuring that the help young people get is determined not by a birthday but by need.
Students with SEND finding work
I saw just how important that type of input is when I visited Moore Lane Integrated Centre in Kingston and Richmond a few weeks ago. I was struck - not only by the sheer amount of cake on offer - but also just how seriously the students took their involvement in the changes. They felt very empowered by the role they had to play.
One of the students, Zakki, told me about his direct involvement in staff appointments. This not only helped him gain invaluable employment skills, but also inspired new teachers to better serve their SEN students.
I was also really encouraged by what I saw just last week when I visited the first purpose-built college for students with learning difficulties at Barnet and Southgate Centre of Excellence.
Their first-rate facilities are shaped and designed with students to maximise opportunity, inclusion and outcomes, as exemplified by the Steps to Work initiative which is helping students cross over into the world of work.
And this is an area where supported internships can really help and provide a valuable bridge into meaningful work - a world that can often be inaccessible and daunting, as we know, for young people with SEND.
We can see just how well this is working at Trafford College in Manchester, where job coaches not only mentor students through their work placements but also mentor employers - many of whom have had little or no experience of working with people with learning difficulties.
Placements have included Marks & Spencer and Premier Inn. One student landed what he described as his ‘dream job’.
As a result, Trafford has achieved a fantastic 70% employment rate for those young people who have taken part in supported internships.
As I’m sure all of you here will be aware, the employment rate for people with learning difficulties has been stubbornly low at around 7%. Trafford have improved on this 10 times over.
Great news, but I want to hear about more SEND students finding their dream jobs, perhaps with some really big-name employers already involved with supported internships - which include National Grid and Transport for London.
They’ve all set a great example, but I hope more businesses will get involved and discover for themselves just what students with SEND can and do contribute.
So there’s a lot of excellent practice that we can build on as we go forward.
Yet these are big reforms and I recognise that it will take time for them to bed in. And that there will inevitably be challenges - some foreseen, some not - along the way.
For instance, I know that there are some issues - ongoing - with funding, and also with the EHC process itself. Fortunately for you and for me, Peter [Mucklow] from the Education Funding Agency and Ann [Gross] from my department will be able to say more about this later today.
But I am aware that some local authorities are passing down funding to help colleges with this issue, and this might be something for more of you to consider and for us to discuss.
But whilst there will always be bumps along the way with change on this scale, let’s not forget the tremendous prospects we have here to transform SEND support and children and young people’s life chances. And, indeed, the survey results point to some really good progress.
There’s, of course, more to do, particularly - as the survey highlighted - on a better exit strategy for young people with SEND as they leave college. So there are a number of things I’d urge you to consider as the reforms roll out more widely.
Make sure that young people have all the information they need at their fingertips by ensuring you’re listed in the local offer, not just in your local area but the surrounding areas, too.
If you haven’t already done so, find out how your college fits into your local authority’s transition plan. They all now have one, so make sure you have been carefully thought about as part of that. And encourage your students and families to take up personal budgets, to really shape their own future.
Families have told us that the reforms are making their lives easier and much of this is down to the great work of your colleges.
One parent I met a few weeks ago said that a review with her child’s tutor had a very different feel to it. She said that it was much more forward-looking and centred around their aspirations.
That’s exactly what I want to hear.
So I urge you in everything you do to continue to push the boundaries and aim high on behalf of young people who have so much potential. You only need to look at the survey results to see how far the FE sector has come. And, to be blunt, we can’t do this without you.
We’re breaking new ground, and by working together I’m hopeful we’re on our way to doing much better by some of our most vulnerable and most rewarding young people. All of us here can see their potential - now let’s help them take that to the world outside the college campus and show everyone what they can do.
This will be a transition which will not take months, but years. Let us know about any teething issues you have, and we can help to solve them together. I look forward to working with you on this.