About a year ago I wrote some bits and pieces about the incoming changes to how support for children and young people with “special educational needs” is funded. I gave an overview of the preceding disability politics background and the potential for a new market where families with Deaf and disabled children will apparently pick their own support from a menu-which-is-not-a-menu (the Local Offer) or elsewhere. I also described how I felt that the professional sphere of BSL/English interpreting has completely failed to engage with what should have been the biggest changes to Deaf Education for thirty years. There’s been no improvement there, that I’m aware of, in the 11 months since: that sphere orbits some other, slower, planet.
What I completely failed to anticipate is the possibility that there will be little or no Further Education (FE) for young Deaf people to go to, whatever their support funding. The irony is that by the time SEN support has completed its reform, perhaps there won’t be anywhere near as much to support with.
The move away from Statements of Special Educational Need (SEN) to the new “personal budget” approach of Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plans is still being rolled out. For children still in statutory education, the deadline to be switched over to an EHC Plan isn’t until 2018, but for young people in FE, the deadline is the start of the next academic year in September 2016. For a ground level worker “at the coalface” like myself, who isn’t privy to the fine details of how my work is being funded (except occasionally by mistake), there’s been no apparent change this year in the kind of support that the service I work for provides. That’s not exactly “good” news, since it results in anomalies such as Higher Education (HE) students occasionally wangling both interpreter and note-taker support, but their younger comrades (with arguably more needs) usually only have the budget to have one type of support worker regardless. But at least we’re not yet seeing any broad pattern in the level of support being reduced. What I don’t know is whether or not any of them are on EHC Plans yet, so am therefore unable to take the temperature of how the new system is panning out. Nor am I aware of any Local Offer-driven developments in families’ personal choice around locating and managing their own educational communication support: we’re not seeing any overt developments in Deaf Industry around it, for example.
What has noticeably changed in a year is FE itself. I work at a large handful of different FE and Sixth Form colleges around London, with an occasional field trip into HE. In previous years, for a sensitive soul like myself, the noise and crowding at certain colleges was sometimes tough to cope with, especially when my tired, ageing interpreter brain was trying to recover from hours of filtering out up to twenty simultaneous speakers. A year on and the corridors feel relatively deserted. Rows of classrooms have no-one in them even at peak hours. You can actually hear yourself think: if it weren’t so eerie, it would be quite pleasant. My service-wide timetable has a wash of whitespace across it and many of my colleagues are feeling a cut in hours. Despite local authority support for SEN being a statutory service (i.e. compulsory by law), the workers which supply that support are now mostly employed on a casual or zero-hour contract basis. In recent years colleges and local authorities have brazenly made contracted CSWs and interpreters redundant and then filled the timetable with casual or pool staff, which seems legally questionable to me and something unions should be exploring. The result is that work is not guaranteed by the service from week to week, and worse (for Deaf students and their families) is the other edge of that sword: we are free to abandon any student with almost no notice at any time, leaving some other (perhaps less qualified and experienced) casual worker to pick up an entire curriculum midway, with little or no opportunity to prepare. (Obviously our integrity works against that, but integrity has limits.) All the more frustrating that a large part of organised campaigning for interpreter working conditions appears to want to work against contracted posts.
It’s difficult not to assume that all of this is the result of successive years of slashed budgets and the removal of large tracts of subsidised vocational learning, with 40% of funding being cut since the Tories took power and (perhaps not coincidentally) the collapse of FE teaching’s regulator, the Institute for Learning, from statutory regulation to voluntary regulation to nothingness. We’re also seeing FE colleges merge into each other, like a 1970s National Geographic film about the sex life of the amoeba running in reverse. Southwark and Lewisham Colleges have become “LeSoCo”. Westminster Kingsway intends to merge with City and Islington. City of Westminster College, the College of North West London and Kensington and Chelsea College are embarking on a “strategic alliance”. South Thames College (which absorbed Merton College not so long ago) is now entering a “strategic partnership” with Lambeth College. Perhaps by the time EHC Plans are fully established, the stage will be set for just one super-college either side of the Thames.
Judging by the pattern in other public services such as the NHS, social care and the unemployment/workfare industry, the central government intention is to funnel all existing funding into the hands of the private sector, with apprenticeships being mysteriously spared from austerity’s “efficiency savings”. I’ve occasionally worked with Deaf apprentices on some kind of public/private joint training initiative, and they struggle to get funding for communication support because of their liminal status in neither education nor employment nor both at once: it’s not that no-one will pass the buck, there literally is no buck to pass.
I’d be very interested to hear from CSWs and interpreters outside of the capital about their recent experiences, because London isn’t necessarily representative of the broader issues in interpreter supply and demand. I also do very little work in secondary education and none in primary, so my point of view may be skewed. I’d also like to explore doing some sort of “crowd-sourced” research into Local Offers and deaf education services from the point of view of those that work in them – I’m told that anecdotes become data if you pack them tightly enough.
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