Written evidence submitted by National Star
National Star College is recognised as a national centre of excellence and rated by both Ofsted and CQC in 2018 as an outstanding specialist provider of residential education and personal development opportunities. The wider charity, National Star, provides long term residential living, therapeutic, health and day services, and Adult and Community Learning. There are main college sites in Cheltenham, Hereford and Pontypool, and partnerships with colleges and local authorities across England providing work related programmes into employment and travel training for people with disabilities. Continuing Professional Development Programmes specialising in teaching, learning and care for people with additional needs are delivered by National Star throughout the UK to staff working in the education, health and social care sectors.
National Star College provides education for young people and adults with disabilities from across the United Kingdom both as residential and day learners. The College provides a range of person centred programmes and services for learners with profound and complex needs to promote inclusion and enable them to achieve their goals and aspirations regardless of their disability. National Star College currently has 115 residential and 133 day high needs places for young people, aged 16 to 25 years old. Learners have physical disabilities and/or acquired brain injuries, alongside associated learning, behavioural, sensory and medical difficulties. Most have complex learning difficulties and disabilities. The number of students with these very complex needs who are given the opportunity to access education is increasing year on year through the education, health, and therapeutic services the college is able to provide.
For more information about us visit www.nationalstar.org
National Star’s evidence for this enquiry is based upon its expertise in the assessment and provision of both education and care for people with complex disabilities aged 16 – 25. National Star supported the vision of the Children and Families Act (2014) and the subsequent SEND reforms. As an outstanding national provider, National Star is particularly well placed to comment upon the impact of the reforms on young people and their families from across over 50 local authority areas.
1 Implementation of critical workers policy
1.1 National Star is not providing evidence for this section.
2 The capacity of children’s services to support vulnerable children and young people.
2.1 For the vast majority of learners who have chosen to shield at home families have provided the care and support the individual requires. Whilst an element of that was to be expected during the Easter holiday period this period has become extended where parents have chosen for their child to remain at home. Due to the complex disabilities National Star learners typically experience it can be hard to arrange the specialised support young people need in a short timeframe, particularly when therapeutic services are required.
3 The effect of provider closure on the early years sector.
3.1 National Star is not providing evidence for this section.
4 The effect of cancelling formal exams, including the fairness of qualifications awarded and pupils’ progression to the next stage of education, or employment.
4.1 National Star responded to the Ofqual consultation on the assessment and grading of vocational, technical and other general qualifications
4.2 To summarise, National Star felt it was important to recognise that, even in cases where an awarding body may provide an alternative assessment, individuals may not all have equal access. This may not only be due to lack of technology, but also to the support requirements of an individual, the expertise of those providing support, and the knowledge of non-education professionals involved in that support. This is especially true of learners isolating, or shielding, who also have learning and physical disabilities, as well as those with communication difficulties, or for whom English is not the first language for them and/or their family members.
4.3 For some learners at National Star completion of qualifications will be delayed where a practical element is required. This will be an additional factor contributing to an overall delay for these learners wishing to progress into work.
5 Support for pupils and families during closures.
5.1 During the initial stages of the pandemic the guidance provided by government was ambiguous. Considering the circumstances this is to be expected. The most significant impact for us as a provider, and the young people and families we work with, was the inconsistency between the guidance that providers should remain open for all young people with a EHC plan, and the guidance that said that people with certain medical needs which make them clinically vulnerable to COVID-19, are safer at home. A significant amount of input was required to interpret the government guidance for our unique setting to ensure we could give young people and their families clear information on which to base their decisions.
5.2 During the initial stages of lock down, local authority communication was inconsistent. Examples include one local authority social worker contacting the parents of a residential student to tell them the placement at National Star had been ceased as they were having to pay for care costs at home. The social worker had not contacted the education team in the local authority, or National Star. Several local authorities contacted parents of residential students to say National Star was closed, this caused distress and confusion for parents, who subsequently needed support and reassurance that National Star was open and would remain open in line with government guidance.
5.3 National Star has invested in providing a significant amount of remote support for learners who chose to isolate at home. This is provided through phone sessions, Microsoft Teams (communication and collaboration software) sessions and through a variety of other media. National Star staff, where risk assessment allows, have been supporting individual students at home to continue to deliver provision, where it is in the best interest of the young person.
5.4 National Star has created specific closed social media groups to support both parent/carers and learners. This has resulted in a high level of positive participation and provided a sense of community for those young people who cannot be with their friends.
6 The financial implications of closures for providers, pupils, and families.
6.1 National Star works with over 50 local authorities, the range of local authority risk assessments and requests for information has, at some points, been extreme. After the initial ambiguity, messaging from central government was clear and consistent. Issues arose as each LA interpreted the government messaging in a different way resulting in a wide range of additional requests. Each government communication resulted in 30 - 40 additional communications from individual local authorities, each with a different emphasis, and mostly requiring a different response. Some local authorities have requested additional daily updates.
6.2 There is a lack of clarity around local authority risk assessment, with no co-ordination on what information local authorities collected and how it was used. Given the acknowledged inequality of provision across England, a standardised risk assessment would offer opportunities for learning after the pandemic.
6.3 A positive point is that the remote tribunal service is working well, with decisions being made in a timely way which has enabled young people, parents/carers, and National Star to plan for the future.
6.4 National Star has found the communication from social care and health inconsistent. Initially it was not clear whether local authorities would honour the contracts for learners’ provision that are already in place. We understand that social care will continue to pay until the end of June, where students have been unable to access placements due to parental preference of having their child at home. There is an ongoing lack of clarity as to the position of health commissioners with regard to paying for existing services.
6.5 Sufficient funding needs to be in place to manage extension requests, additional transition activity, and new starters, as detailed in impact upon disadvantaged groups below.
6.6 Some learners have been unable to access virtual learning due to lack of IT equipment. National Star has used bursary funds to provide 4 laptops to learners and their families to ensure they could continue to learn from home.
6.7 Where learners with complex disabilities have returned home families are now providing full time care. This means that family members are no longer available to work as they have become carers to a vulnerable individual who is shielding.
7 The effect on disadvantaged groups and the long term impact on the most vulnerable groups
Impact upon curriculum delivery
7.1 The proportion of learners remaining at college has been high with 88 of 115 residential learners staying at college. Conversely, the day learner numbers have been low with 15 out of 133 learners physically attending a location provided by National Star. A large proportion of day learners are supported interns, or skills for work learners who are unable to access placements. Most learners who are not attending college are accessing their curriculum from home, and engaging with both teaching and therapy teams.
7.2 Many day learners have one year programmes, we are anticipating a high number of extension requests as learners will not have achieved the outcomes specified in their EHC plan, especially if the outcome involved a transition to work.
7.3 The curriculum delivered by National Star has been significantly impacted, with real and practical learning environments such as StarBistro, StarShop and the reception and glamping venues being closed, and employers are not able to take supported interns or other students on work experience. Even with the high level of commitment staff have shown to moving learner’s highly individualised programmes online, young people will never be able to get back the full learning experience that college life offered under pre Covid conditions due to the time bound nature of their learning programmes.
7.4 The impact is particularly significant for learners whose programme is based within a host employers environment, for example supported interns, and trainees. Access to real and practical learning environments is key to enabling young people with learning disabilities to develop, secure, and transfer employability skills, Particular attention needs to be paid to those learners who have been unable to complete their work related learning programme, disrupting their progression into work.
7.5 Learners in their 1st or 2nd year who have had their learning disrupted may need additional, or different, support to reengage in learning. Re-assessment and subsequent changes to EHC plans should be anticipated by local authorities as the initial focus should be on learners’ emotional health and wellbeing, before moving onto the acquisition of knowledge and skills that have been potentially lost during this period. These skills are required for adult life.
7.6 For a significant number of National Star’s learners there will be a period of readjustment to college, and the social setting of college, that will need to happen before education, and therapeutic benefits, can be realised. This needs to be considered in the ongoing planning of learner’s programmes, and will no doubt be reflected in an increase of extension requests.
Transition on from college for those in their last year.
7.7 National Star has already received a high volume of extension requests for this year’s leavers. Although every effort is being made to provide a high level of transition planning it relies on a range of statutory services being engaged. This has obviously been a difficult time to plan complex transitions involving a range of statutory services and providers. There is a real risk that some learners may return home as the default option and not progress to the adult life of their choice.
7.8 Currently there is a very high level of uncertainty for parents/carers during the pandemic. This uncertainty is increased as families experience an extended limbo between education provision and the services required for their son or daughter to successfully transition into adult life. This is causing high levels of stress and anxiety for young people with a wide range of disabilities and their parents/carers, and families.
7.9 National Star is deeply concerned that leaners that were due to leave college will have missed a significant amount of transition planning. This is due to learners with complex disabilities only being able to move forward with transition planning once local social care systems are engaged, either to identify suitable living accommodation, plan an appropriate support package to live and work, or to identify opportunities for engaging with and contributing to the local community. Typically this work happens during the period that has been locked down by the pandemic. Although the reality of ‘choice’ available to students, which is constrained through provision availability and funding, will still be the same, providers’ ability to prepare young people and their families for the final step into adulthood will be hampered. Young people will be in positions of uncertainty relating to where they live, what friendship groups are available to them, and what opportunities exist for employment / occupation. Despite National Star leavers being able to make decisions for themselves, their options will be limited to what is considered by others to be both affordable and possible. The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing compromise of the rights of those most marginalised in society will surely tighten those constraints further.
Transition into college from school in September 2020
7.10 Transition planning for learners moving into college is continuing with adaptations in place. For most of the new 1st year residential learners the assessment process is complete and funding agreements are starting to come through (May 2020). The transition from school to college may include visits and taster days for learners, or specific activity to enable a smooth transition into college. None of the usual practices for transition have been possible during Covid-19
7.11 National Star has been unable to respond to any further consultations from local authorities, or requests for assessment for residential learners. Although this number is fairly low as most residential assessments have already taken place, it will have disadvantaged some young people with complex disabilities.
7.12 Assessment for day students has been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Referrals, and assessments for day students, are usually carried out later than residential assessments. At the start of the pandemic, day student assessments were carried out on a risk assessment basis, during the local down period no assessments took place. National Star is currently trialling an assessment process that takes place virtually and by ‘phone. This process has been tested on day learners with less complex disabilities, so far 6 learners have been assessed in this way.
7.13 The observations above do leave a group of day learners with more complex disabilities that we are unable to robustly assess through the new processes we have set up in response to the situation we find ourselves in. The impacts for these young people and their families are likely to include an increased level of stress and anxiety, coupled with an uncertain future.
7.14 Although funding contracts are being agreed for residential learners, they are not being agreed for day learners. There does not appear to be anything behind this other than the later assessment points. The issue of agreed placements was pre-existing with over 50% of placements not being agreed by June each year. Covid-19 has placed further stress on a system that was already failing.
8 What contingency planning can be done to ensure the resilience of the sector in case of a future national emergency?
8.1 The resilience of the sector was in question before the pandemic as education providers and local government did not have sufficient money to provide the essential resources and services that the most vulnerable people in our society should be able to rely upon. Moving forward, we need to ensure that there is key strategic partnership between providers, including specialist national centres of excellence, and local authorities, to anticipate potential problems and agree collaboratively what a range of solutions could be. The subsequent pooling of knowledge and resource would ensure we are all well placed to meet the demands of a future national emergency.
8.2 It has become clear throughout the pandemic that as an organisation we will have to adapt and evolve the way we operate to meet the demands of the current situation, and the new situation that emerges post Covid-19. A key area to consider is the support required by the charitable sector to continue to provide services. National Star is a charity and has often been able to provide additional resources and services through charitable activities. Charitable income will be significantly affected by the pandemic, and anticipated economic downturn. It is likely that the further development and delivery of services to some of the most vulnerable young people in society will be impacted by these factors coming together.
8.3 Changes to the Children and Families Act (2014) triggered by the modifications imposed by the Coronavirus Act (2020) need to be carefully monitored to understand the impact upon young people. National Star was contacted by several local authorities to confirm they would now only use reasonable endeavours to secure the provision detailed in the EHC plan. This was, significantly, before the relevant section of the Coronavirus Act was activated. The inconstancies between local authorities’ response to the pandemic may increase the inequality of provision for young people across England.