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Personalised Education

Authors: Simon Duffy and Pippa Murray

Personal development and learning is vital to all of us. But what we need to learn and how we learn varies. This is especially true for people with learning difficulties, special education needs or cognitive disabilities. For this reason personalised education should be made central to local and national policy.

In this article we explain some of the problems that young people with learning disabilities face in getting personalised education and we also explain some of the practical ways in which progress towards personalised education is now being acheived.

Why personalised education is necessary

Having opportunities for further education and learning is central to a life of meaning; it can help provide the personal motivation needed for self-fulfillment and emotional well being. However, opportunities for formal learning after secondary school have long been denied disabled young people, particularly those with complex needs and learning difficulties. Morevoer opportunities for informal learning are often poor and young people too often find themselves in environments where there is too little stimulation and too few opportunities for development. 

Disabled young people, including those with complex impairments, want to continue learning and working towards their own goals when they leave school. In recent research young people told us:

  • I would like to do work experience that can help me be a steward at football (17 year old)
  • I’d like to brush up on my art skills and go to a college that does art (18 year old)
  • I really wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t go to college (18 year old)
  • I would be happy if I could go to college and get a job afterwards (19 year old)
  • I want to learn new skills and go on a trip with my friends (17 year old)

I feel deeply upset that he is learning nothing new at the day centre. Not only that, but he isn’t even being engaged with properly. It costs a lot of money for him to attend the day centre, but it’s like he has 'nothing time' there. (Parent, 2011)

In spite of the fact that there is a legislative framework to support learners who require additional support and a duty to provide learning opportunities for young people with learning difficulties up to the age of 25, colleges tend to adopt ad hoc responses to meeting the needs and aspirations of disabled students. Young people and their families report several difficulties.

Narrow focus of available courses

Further Education (FE) colleges are tied to a developmental curriculum where students have to demonstrate progress through nationally agreed frameworks. This denies many students with communication impairments or learning difficulties the opportunity to follow courses that interest them. The majority of students with learning difficulties are only offered places on courses for ‘Basic Skills’, ‘Independent Living’ and the like. Few students with additional needs are able to follow their interests or join their peers in a course on car maintenance, beauty, cooking etc. This denial of opportunity further restricts employment opportunities.

I want to go to college to learn to build houses. I want to be a builder. (Jason, 19)

Jason wanted to go to college to learn a trade. He has always wanted to be a builder and, with the right support, we think he could manage that. He will always need support. It’s not like one day he is suddenly going to do things on his own or behave differently but he could do it. And even if he doesn’t make it, he should be able to try. What is the point of him going to college to learn about independence skills. Surely he would learn about indendence if he had a job. Anyway he’s gone to college to learn independence skills as it was that or not going to college. But he still wants to be a builder! (Jason’s Mum)

Lack of appropriate support

Most FE students can manage their own time and direct their own study. But while this is true for the majority, the present organisation puts many students with learning difficulties who are unable to direct their own study at a grave disadvantage. For example, a 16 hour course (with additional study hours) leaves many young people occupied for only 3 short days a week on a course that is officially ‘full time’. Many families feel forced to send their son or daughter to a full time day centre rather than to a learning environment where, with the right support, more could be acheived.

We could have sent him to college for three days a week. When they say three days they actually mean three half days! He would leave home at 9.30 and get back again around 3pm. I work 9 while 4, so that doesn’t fit at all. And then there are all the holidays. Although he might have enjoyed college, it just wouldn’t fit - so he is going to a day centre instead. (Parent)

Traditional funding arrangements do not allow for students to tailor learning to meet their needs. For example, some young people simply cannot learn in a formal learning environment. They need to direct experience of an activity to be able to learn, and they need to be able to move around more freely than a formal learning environment allows.

The time he spent at college was a nightmare. It all ended in tears because he just hates being in one place all the time. His behaviour changes completely when he is out and about doing things he enjoys with a support worker who understands him. He seems to manage to control himself then. (Parent)

An inflexible curriculum

Young disabled people with communication impairments frequently need an adapted curriculum. However this happens rarely, and so people are left unable to access the courses that are being delivered.

I am studying health and social care at college. I would like to go to university. But they won’t let me move in to the next year because I can’t prove to them that I am learning. I don’t understand what they are saying most of the time and they don’t give my PA the lesson beforehand. If they did that, she could adapt it for me and then I would know what was going on in class. They make me feel like I am stupid and that I can’t learn. I can learn, but I need the information to be broken down differently. (Sam, 19)

Individual budgets for learning

Providing individual budgets for learning would open doors to give disabled young people the opportunities for learning they are entitled to. It is possible for young people and families to have more control over education and even to control budgets for education. Currently all young people are entitled to:

  • free primary education (primary school)
  • free secondary education (secondary school)
  • and some access to tertiary education (college)

However tertiary education (college) is not always free, access is limited in the ways we have outlined above, and there are different rules about what kind of subsidy an individual or a college will get.

Moreover, at the moment most young people and families get only the most limited kind of control over their education. Our taxes go directly from central government to schools and colleges; we may have some choice over which schools or college we attend but even this is often highly restricted.

However things are beginning to change - there are at least 3 different ways that people can gain more control over their own education:

1. School-based approaches

Some schools are beginning to experiment with systems of individualised funding that are giving families the opportunity to shape education and training so that it better fits the young person’s needs and aspirations.

For example, this is happening at Ellen Tinkham School in Exeter. Schools and colleges can freely choose to do this at the moment. Although it may mean breaking away from older habits by sharing financial information with families and by using money more flexibly there is no legal or policy problem with this approach.

2. College-based approaches

Some colleges also enable families and young people to control their own education budget. This enables the young person to get more personalised support and to make better use of their education to support work opportunities or encourage other forms of community contribution.

For example, this is happening at Sheffield College, as part of a strategic agreement between the local authority and the college. Young people and families are given an indication of their educational budget - allocated to meet educational need - well before the young person leaves school. The college is then empowered to work with the young person to then develop a personalised education solution holistically - combining other funding sources like health and social care. Families can receive some or all of this funding as a direct payment or can leave the educational funding within a budget which is managed by the college itself.

3. National reform

There has also been some progress in changing funding systems at a higher level. Recent changes in higher education funding mean that local authorities now control the money which subsidizes access to tertiary education at local colleges. In addition the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA), a central government body, controls funding for people who leave their local area to get an education outside the boundaries of their own local authority. There are currently 3 distinct streams of funding which are managed by the YPLA:

i) Assisted Support for Learning

This fund pays for the provision of learning to young people with additional learning needs in local colleges, the funding goes directly to the college from the YPLA. 60% of this funding is calculated by means of a national formula to reflect local GCSE results, and it provides support at levels of between £500 & £5,500 per capita; the other 40% is negotiated locally and is for people needing support at levels between £5,500 and £19,000 per year. This money goes in a block to local colleges for specialist courses.

ii) SEN block grant

This fund supports post-16 special schools and the purchase of out-of-area placements by local authorities. Often the total cost of sending children to schools outside the local area far exceeds the funds that are invested locally.

This is usually the most expensive option.

iii) Specialist Placement budget

This budget funds post-16 education when a specialist independent providers is being used. This is usually the most expensive option.

Planned reforms

Currently the national plan is that these 3 distinct budgets are integrated into one budget which local authorities will be given authority to manage in 2012/13. However it is not clear whether money will come directly to a local authority or whether it will be a virtual budget with services already commissioned out.

It is also proposed that there be a Living and Learning for Work Framework (LLWF). The LLWF aims to provide a universal system to assessment and individual funding for any young person who has been identified as having additional needs (these young people have rights that are identified in Section 139a of the Learning & Skills Act 2000).

Schools are expected to provide information about the young person; and local colleges, alongside the local authority and partners in the voluntary sector, are charged with developing a creative curriculum that makes FE accessible for all young people.

Currently the Young People’s Learning Agency is testing out the development of a Resource Allocation System (RAS) for educational funding and is also interested in integrating assessments for social care and health care with educational assessments. However progress on all of this currently seems uncertain and is subject to some policy confusion. [The Centre for Welfare Reform and ibk initatives are currently contacting central government to pursue this matter.]

It is important to note there are some strange incentives in the current system. Funding for the most expensive residential colleges remains the responsibility of national government; however this means that funding for people with complex needs is then invested outside the home authority. This further undermines the ability of local areas to develop their own network of supports. The Centre for Welfare Reform welcomes the efforts of the Young Peoples Learning Agency to shift resources towards local areas and to develop one RAS for additional educational need. The experience in Sheffield (Cowan, 2010) suggests that this approach could lead to a much lower take up of out-of-area placements.


Although it is good to see that central government and the YPLA have expressed some enthusiasm for increased individualisation and personalisation progress seems slow. However there is no reason for local leaders to await these long-term developments.

Work that began in Essex and Sheffield in 2006, has already demonstrated that it is possible for education funding to be provided to young people and their families as an individual budget. 

This means:

  1. They can decide how the money is spent - as long as they ensure appropriate educational outcomes are achieved
  2. They can integrate funding from education with funding from social care or health - to ensure efficient an flexible use of the whole amount

These educational individual budgets can be managed either by:

  1. Funding is held and managed by an intermediate agency - or middle-man - like the college itself
  2. Funding is provided through the local authorities existing mechanisms as a direct payment

We recommend that local areas take a pragmatic approach:

  1. Agree a local RAS with just a few distinct levels of educational support that fits within the current overall cost levels.
  2. Identify the learning needs of every young person leaving school who needs personalised support - and put forward a case to YPLA for each individual confirming that assessed learning needs cannot be met through current provision and give outline of programme and estimated costs
  3. Work with local colleges to widen the range of learning opportunities in order to make FE accessible to all young people, irrespective of impairment or support need.
  4. Take advantage of the fact that locally designed support solutions are likely to be both of a higher quality and more efficient than solutions that take people away from home, family and community.
  5. Get families involved and informed at the earliest possible opportunity; do not leave families guessing what they may be entitled to.

The paradox is that the slow pace by which national guidance is evolving may discourage local practitioners from exploring more creative and personalised solutions. This may even lead to families feeling forced to press for more institutional and distant solutions. This would be the worst possible outcome.

The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Personalised Education © Simon Duffy and Pippa Murray 2011.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.


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