Children with learning disabilities lose out as LSC ends contract with college
When the LSC suddenly ended its contract with Coleg Elidyr, a specialist college, many children with learning disabilities were left without a place.
Malai Sontheimer was making excited plans with her son Oliver, 19, for his first big move from home in September. Oliver, who is on the autistic spectrum, was due to start full-time at Coleg Elidyr, a specialist college for people with learning disabilities, set in 40 acres in a valley above Llandovery, Carmarthenshire.
But while packing their bags for a holiday, Sontheimer and her son, who live in Bristol, received notice from the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) that it had terminated its contract with the college. No reasons were given and Oliver was told to find alternative funding from his local social services, or to seek alternative education.
Twenty-one other students received similar news; six of them were due to start this autumn, the remainder were already attending the college.
“This timing is totally insensitive and cruel to people like Oliver,” says Sontheimer. “He doesn’t understand the concept of money, so he thinks it’s his fault, and keeps saying, ‘I’m very sorry, sorry about Coleg’. It’s heartbreaking because normally I would be talking about what it’s like there – now we try not to speak about it, because living in the unknown is Oliver’s nightmare.”
No right to choose
Bristol social services has said it needs to know the reasons for the termination of the LSC’s contract with Coleg Elidyr before it can take over Oliver’s funding. “Oliver still has LSC money, only now he lacks the right to choose Coleg,” says his mother.
And therein lies a mystery. An LSC spokesman says: “Under the LSC’s standard terms of contract, either pary is entitled to terminate the contract by giving three months’ notice without any need to give reasons for that termination. The LSC has exercised this right in this case.”
When the news first hit the families, however, the LSC’s West Midlands learning and quality director, Julie Lessiter, told parents and the Guardian that the action had been taken for educational reasons after an “Ofsted” report. Yet the last inspection by Estyn, the education and training inspectorate for Wales, was six years ago, and the next inspection is due at Christmas.
In the absence of a full explanation, speculation abounds: does the motive lie in the preparation to disband the LSC and hand specialist funding over to local councils? If so, there are national implications, and other specialist colleges could risk the same problems.
“I am still in deep shock,” says Bjarte Haugen, the college manager. “In my 29 years here I have never known anything like this.”
A normal annual monitoring visit (AMV) by Estyn took place in May, he says. “Since May we were already hard at work making changes, had a new head of education, and an LSC meeting was set for July. Only when they arrived in July did we realise that the meeting was now a formal breaking of the contract. Had we known their intentions we would have taken the necessary preparations, including legal advice. They quoted clause 19.5, which means they don’t have to give reasons.”
Sam Leeder, 19, who began at Coleg last November, has been told he cannot continue there. His mother, Tracy Finnley, says the news is devastating. “I started searching the width and breadth of England for a residential college for Sam. He wouldn’t get out of the car at the first one. At Coleg, it was like he’d always been there.”
Finnley is chair of a new group, Equal Measures for Special Students, which is campaigning for Coleg Elidyr to be given a chance to improve, as would a mainstream FE college. In mainstream colleges, a poor report is followed by an LSC notice to improve. The group is seeking legal advice and believes there may be a case for judicial review.
“If my son had been in a mainstream FE college, and it had any problem, it would have been placed on special measures,” says Finnley. “Why can’t his specialist college get the same help? Simply put, learners want their college, and by implication themselves, to have equal treatment to those in the state sector, many of whom do not cater for their special needs, so they cannot go elsewhere, because nothing else is appropriate.”
Coleg is a Camphill community, run according to the Steiner philosophy, where people with learning disabilities can learn gardening, forestry and other practical skills.
Finnley says the college has done wonderful things for Sam. “It’s nonsense that the education there is not satisfactory,” she says. “Before, he could only look at pictures in a book. Now he can recognise words. He has gone from someone who would not leave my side to waving me goodbye.”
Their MP, Julie Kirkbride, is also investigating the issue. “This was a bolt out of the blue,” she says. “I want to know more. It is very destabilising for Sam when clearly he is happy. I support the Equal Measures group in calling for special measures.”
Natspec, the organisation representing 40 specialist colleges, also believes the college should be given an explanation and a chance to improve. Its chief executive, Alison Boulton, says: “The LSC policy is called Managing Underperformance and there is normally a notice to improve. Any other college would be offered an improvement adviser and I have been one myself. If it were a poor Ofsted report, the LSC should have brought in normal managing procedures. That is what I would expect.
“The LSC can’t have it both ways,” she says. “On the one hand, it says there is no reason, yet it has already said there were reasons. They should have gone down a different route. This is not an offer of support for the college.”
“Oliver Sontheimer’s case is clear,” says Boulton. “His local Bristol college has already said that his needs cannot be met there because he is too immature. Specialist help is clearly needed.”
A spokesman for the Welsh assembly says: “We are aware of the LSC decision. We will, of course, make our own determination in respect of students from Wales.”
Claudia Brown, a therapist who receives referrals from the National Autistic Society (NAS), says the situation is potentially catastrophic for students who are already vulnerable.
“These young people are not only going through puberty, they also see the world as a confusing place. Coleg and other such educational environments are specially programmed to enable these young people to access the outside world.”
Brown is now in discussion with Mencap, the charity for people with learning disabilities, and the NAS on behalf of the Equal Measures campaign group. A spokesperson for Mencap says: “Where LSC contracts are withdrawn, it is imperative that the LSC provides students with appropriate good-quality alternatives. If no immediate alternatives are available, the LSC must enable the college to continue offering these placements until suitable alternatives are found.”
The soon-to-be disbanded LSC may have changed its policy mid-flight. But the needs of the students with learning disabilities have not changed.