Gap years

The Valuing People white paper, aimed at improving services for
people with learning difficulties in England,1
highlights problems confronting young people with learning
difficulties and their families in the transition from school to
adult life, and from children’s to adult services.

Chief among these problems are the lack of co-ordination between
agencies and the minimal involvement of young people in planning
their future. To improve things, partnership boards, set up over
the past 14 months and consisting of professionals from health,
social care and education, people with learning difficulties and
their carers, are supposed to have a “transition champion”. Also,
social services directors are now required to ensure good links
between children’s and adult services.

The mechanism for smoothing the transition into adult life of young
people with special educational needs is supposed to be transition
planning, established by the Education Act 1993 and reinforced by
the revised code of practice issued by the Department for Education
and Skills.2 But our research3 (see panel)
revealed a significant gap between policy and practice in what
happens to young people with learning difficulties and their
families at transition. One in five of the young people in our
study, for example, left school without any transition planning,
despite legislation and guidance to help implement this.

Even where planning did take place, one in four youngsters were not
involved in the planning process, despite the requirements of the
code of practice and the Children Act 1989. Although the transition
plan is supposed to set out the young people’s future plans – and
how these will be met by services – a number of key aspects of the
move to adulthood had not in fact been covered by the time that
they left school. And there was a stark mismatch between the topics
families said they would have liked included in transition
planning, and those which were.

Social services staff are among professionals with duties to
provide support for young people during the transition period. Our
research confirmed the inadequate links between children and
adults’ social services identified by Valuing People. More than
two-fifths of the parents of young people who had received some
transition planning said that the transfer to adult social services
had not been dealt with. Nonetheless, the contribution of
individual social workers was clearly appreciated by some families
who had received transition planning. Almost a quarter identified a
social worker as having helped them the most through the

Other parents, however, had negative experiences with social
services to report. Among these were lack of input at meetings and
beyond, a perceived lack of commitment to their children,
inconsistencies between different social workers and a lack of
co-ordination between children’s and adults’ teams. Some parents
commented on poor continuity, and a lack of prior warning that
their social worker was about to change. One family, for example,
only found that the social worker supporting their daughter had
left (without handing over any information) when no one from social
services attended her planned review meeting and the father phoned
social services to complain.

Other parents talked of being caught between two stools – the
children’s team had stopped their involvement but the adult team
would not become involved until their youngster reached a certain
age, typically 18. One young person’s social worker in the
children’s team was on long-term sick leave, with no replacement
available. Despite their circumstances, his mother was told by the
adult division: “We don’t look at it until he’s 18.”

A critical issue was the low level in support available from adult
social services compared with that from children’s teams. One
19-year-old woman’s mother was told by the social worker that she
would not be able to come any more and that she should not expect
to see much of the social worker from the adult team. The daughter
had not been allocated to any social worker specifically; it was up
to her to make contact if any difficulties arose.

Where families had had a smooth transition, this had been helped by
key personnel who were consistent figures at planning meetings and
who had got to know the youngster well. One family spoke
enthusiastically of the new transition manager in their local area.
The mother said: “His sole remit is to look after the transition…
he’s been absolutely brilliant all the way through.”

Not surprisingly, two-thirds of parents who had experienced
transition planning had suggestions for improvements to the
process. Most of these proved to be exactly what statutory guidance
says should routinely happen, or would normally constitute good
practice anyway: regular transition planning reviews at the
prescribed time; information to, and involvement of, the young
person; review meetings to be attended by relevant professionals;
support by social services staff who were informed, constant and
who liaised well between children’s and adults’ services.

We also visited 10 services in different parts of the country that
seemed to be addressing some of the concerns raised by families and
demonstrating good practice.

Surrey had carried out a Best Value review of transition, involving
the whole range of key stakeholders, including youngsters and their
families and the organisations involved with them. Among other
things this led to a multi-agency transition strategy steering
group; work with young people and families; and the development of
an early identification protocol aimed at identifying at 14-plus
the young people who were likely to be significant users of adult

Our research found that in Oldham an early start has been made on
person-centred planning. An early referral protocol has been
developed; there is also a transition co-ordinator and an ethnic
minority action plan.

Elsewhere, we found innovative approaches to promoting young
people’s involvement in planning, including the development of
multi-media profiling (a user-centred, computer-based resource of
images, video film, sound recordings and text about a young
person’s daily activities, individual history and choices). In two
London boroughs this was being introduced to help young people make
their views known at transition planning meetings.

The Connexions service has been designed to help the transition
from childhood to adulthood. But given the inevitable lack of
learning difficulties expertise among many Connexions personal
advisers it seems unlikely that Connexions is going to be able to
deliver all the changes needed to make transition a better
experience for young people with learning difficulties and their
families in the near future. 

– For a summary of the research findings telephone 0117 923 8137.
Growing Up, an accessible illustrated booklet for young
people with learning difficulties is available from 01562

About the study    

The research (supported by the Community Fund) involved a postal
questionnaire completed by 283 families of youngsters aged 13-25,
separate in-depth interviews with 27 youngsters with learning
difficulties and their parents, and visits to 10 innovative schemes
or services.   

Linda Ward is director of the Norah Fry Research Centre,
University of Bristol where Pauline Heslop is a research fellow. 
Robina Mallett is carer support officer at the Home Farm Trust. Ken
Simons was senior research fellow at the Norah Fry Research Centre.
He died after this article was written and it is dedicated to his


1 DoH, Valuing People: A
New Strategy for Learning Disability in the 21st Century
Department of Health, 2001  

2 Department for Education
and Skills, Special Educational Needs: Code of Practice,
DfES, 2001  

3  P Heslop, R Mallett, K
Simons, L Ward, Bridging the Divide at Transition: What Happens
for Young People with Learning Difficulties and their
British Institute of Learning Disabilities,


For a research summary see

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