Building welfare support into post-16 provision is crucial to improving retention and achievements, says Tara Bliss-Appleton.
The Saint Edmunds Society has offered vocational training since 2012 to young people who have struggled in mainstream education, to help them to develop meaningful trade-specific skills that will open doors to further training and employment.
We soon realised, however, that skills training was not enough. Disengagement from mainstream education is often driven by personal circumstances such as permanent exclusion, bullying, family breakdown and sometimes substance misuse. Our students presented with a range of barriers to learning, including anxiety, low income, and limited literacy and numeracy skills.
Our response was to build a strong welfare team, under the theory that a holistic package of support can improve learning and life outcomes. I’m a level 2 social worker with 14 years’ experience working across frontline crisis and therapeutic intervention teams, and I now manage a welfare team of seven with multiple specialisms in special educational needs, advocacy, mentoring and behaviour support.
The central focus of our welfare support team has been to work in partnership with students, parents and all professionals within an individual’s support network – from the NHS wellbeing service to children’s services or supported housing in the voluntary sector – to design a student support plan around short and long-term career goals.
We all know this kind of support for vulnerable learners is desirable, but the key question is, how do you make it work in practice? And how do you fund it?
The simple answer from an FE perspective is to pay careful attention to how support is allocated on an individual learning record and not just go through the motion of adding “x hours” in tutorial and enrichment support without the intent to deliver. It is best practice to allocate each student a link welfare worker, but have them get to know the entire team. Face to face contact – rather than an electronic survey to monitor support needs – is essential, and contributes to confidence, retention and achievement.
Some of our funding comes from schools commissioning us for alternative provision. For the post-16 study programme, additional learning support funding is allocated from our prime Education and Skills Funding Agency provider and local authority high needs top-up funding (where support funding is more than £6,000), which is agreed at the local authority SEN panel.
Further funding is allocated to projects from charitable trusts, European Social Fund short courses and employers such as Pentaco Construction and Taylor Wimpey, who see investment in young people and support services as part of their corporate social responsibility.
When the welfare team concept was first introduced to St-Eds, I was fortunate that a grant was awarded from a local charitable trust to fund my post for 18 months in 2014.
For students accessing our 16-19 study programme, specific time is allocated to each enrichment and support aim displayed on their individual learning plan (ILP), in addition to our flexible “drop in” support service.
Our growth in post-16 numbers from 20 in 2014-15 to 96 in 2017-18 reflects the impact the welfare team has had on our retention strategy. In the past academic year, 96 per cent of service users reported that the welfare support they received had a positive impact on their experience, motivation and overall achievement.
Spending for each full-time equivalent 16-19 student (eg, sixth-form colleges and general FE colleges) has fallen significantly from £6,208 in 2010-11 to £5,698 in 2017-18. It appears the gap in tutorial and enrichment support stemmed from the cuts in entitlement funding used to fund tutorial and positive enrichment activities for all students between 2010-11 and 2012-13. With less funding, many students who receive disadvantage and sector skills uplifts are often restricted by the postcode they live in or vocational trade they choose. For example, construction students receive a 20 per cent sector skills uplift whereas students on a horticulture and forestry course could receive up to 75 per cent.
What needs to change at policy level is the amount of funding uplift available for all young people with additional support needs, not just those with the right postcode or sector skill, or those eligible for top-up funding through their education health care plan.