We’re almost two years on from the biggest change to SEND accountability in a generation – the introduction of local area SEND service inspections, led by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC). You can read a guide to how these inspections work here, what inspectors discovered in their first year here, and a Q&A session on the inspections with Ofsted’s then-lead SEND adviser here.
At the time of writing, Ofsted and CQC have posted 53 local area SEND inspection reports. In all, inspectors have told 22 of these 53 local areas – just over 40% of them – to put together a written statement of action – the most serious sanction that the inspection process offers. This is a well-established process now. But what happens afterwards? What do these "Written Statements of Action" (WSOA) look like, who makes sure that they are turned into real improvement on the ground, and what does this improvement look like?
We’ve spent a bit of time looking at it, and we have some concerns. Read on if you want to know why…
What happens after the inspection?
Once a local area’s been inspected, Ofsted and CQC write a report, known as an ‘outcome letter’. This letter usually gets published about two months after the inspection, and it will tell the local area whether it needs to put together a written statement of action. If they do, the local area gets 70 working days to write it.
There’s no set template for these WSOAs - but in their outcome letter, the inspectors will have identified several areas where they feel serious improvement is needed. For each of these areas, the local area writes a draft plan outlining:
- what the intended outcome will be;
- what needs to improve to achieve the outcome, and by when;
- who in the local area is responsible for ensuring that improvement happens, and
- the indicators or steps that will tell the local area that it is actually improving.
The local area then sends the draft WSOA to Ofsted & the CQC, who review it to make sure it’s fit for purpose. If it’s not, then inspectors send the draft WSOA back to the local area, and they rewrite it. But once the written statement of action is finalised, the Ofsted & CQC inspectors’ work is largely done. Under the current framework, it’s not their job to ensure that a local area actually delivers on its promises. That’s someone else’s job – and that someone is the Department for Education.
The inspection handbook doesn’t say much about how this phase of the process works, but this is what the DfE told us recently:
“As set out in the inspection handbook, where a written statement of action is required, we work with Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and NHS England (NHSE) to engage the local area to bring about the necessary improvements identified by inspection.
“We prioritise support to develop the written statement of action, meet with officials to seek reassurances about urgency and prioritisation of improving services and monitor and challenge delivery of actions in the written statement.
“We ask that the local area publishes the written statement and keeps it updated so that everyone can monitor the progress being made and, after 12 months, we provide advice to the Minister on progress with delivering the actions in the written statement.” Department for Education, 2018
In practice, the ‘engagement’ seems to centre around quarterly visits from the DfE’s roving band of hired specialist SEND Advisers, but other outside agencies are sometimes brought in to assist with niche areas of weakness identified by the inspections.
The decision point at 12 months is crucial – this is when DfE civil servants advise their Minister about whether the local area has made enough progress. At this point, the Minister then writes to the local area to tell them what the next steps will be. If the local area hasn’t delivered on its Written Statement of Action, then the DfE has a toolbox of follow-up options. These options include follow-up support & monitoring, sending Ofsted & CQC inspectors back in, and more potent options, including issuing a statutory direction ordering change – a tool used regularly to improve problematic children’s services.
So what’s happening on the ground?
At the time of writing, there are eight local areas that were told over a year ago by inspectors to put together a written statement of action. As of mid-April, five had received a Ministerial letter from the DfE advising them of their progress. A number of them haven't been publicly published, but we asked the DfE to provide them to SNJ, and they kindly obliged.
Check the table below for more detail:
|Local Area||Date of Ofsted / CQC Inspection Outcome Letter||Written Statement of Action||Ministerial Letter||Next Steps|
|Rochdale||Nov 2016||Oct 2017||Not published, but made available by DfE. Download Rochdale Ministerial Letter here.||Local area to report back to DfE in 6 months, DfE / NHS advisers available if local area requires them|
|Hartlepool||Nov 2016||Update Dec 2017||Not published, but made available to SNJ by DfE. Download Hartlepool Ministerial Letter here.||DfE to provide “ongoing support & advice.” Local area to report back to DfE, June 2018|
|Surrey||Dec 2016||March 2017||Published on Surrey's Local Offer||DfE to provide “ongoing support & advice.” Local area to report back to DfE, August 2018.|
|Sefton||Dec 2016||Update Jan 2018||Not published, made available to SNJ by DfE. Download Sefton Ministerial Letter here.||Local area to report back to DfE, Feb 2019. DfE / NHS advisers available if local area requires them|
|Suffolk||Jan 2017||June 2017||On Local Offer||DfE to provide “ongoing support & advice.” Local area to report back to DfE, August 2018|
|Sandwell||Mar 2017||Update Mar 2018||Not yet written||n/a|
|Dorset||Mar 2017||Aug 2017||Not written yet||n/a|
|Waltham Forest||Mar 2017||Update Dec 2017||Not written yet||n/a|
It’s not always easy for families to find out what’s going on, because not every local area makes the information available. The DfE told us, “we encourage local leaders to share the [Ministerial] letters with their partners, including parents, to inform and support their work to improve services." However, it’s left up to the local area, and some of them haven’t published them on their Local Offer or anywhere else that we could find. Happily, in the name of transparency, the Department for Education were commendably quick to send us the unpublished letters on request.
Move along folks, nothing to see here…
We'd like to know what the Department for Education’s threshold is for acceptable progress? What happens if the local area isn’t delivering on all its commitments in its written statement of action?
Five Ministerial letters have been published so far. All of them are very positive about the progress being made in delivering commitments, reporting that SEND services are improving. All local areas are asked to keep the DfE updated, and three of them will have “ongoing support and advice” from DfE officials, working with NHS England where necessary.
And that’s it. Light-touch monitoring for all. But what the letters don’t say is whether the local areas have delivered on their written statements of action or not. And in ALL cases, they haven’t – not yet. All five local areas have made some progress, but they haven’t completed the improvement task that inspectors laid out for them. In fact, in some local areas fundamental areas of service improvement have barely even started.
In Sefton, for example, work is still underway to ensure that EHCPs are routinely shared with health professionals. Some elements of the Sefton WSOA won’t be complete for another TWO years. This matters. Once the local area gets a thumbs-up from the DfE, accountability then becomes a largely self-reporting process – it’ll be the local area that updates the DfE on how well they are doing, with some occasional light-touch monitoring. And do we trust them to be accurate and transparent in their reporting? Judging from the fact that some haven't even published their Ministerial letters, I'd say the answer, on the whole, is no.
This arrangement is very similar to the accountability process that was in play prior to the Ofsted / CQC SEND inspections. And that doesn’t exactly leave a warm, fuzzy feeling in the gut.
What do parents & carers think? Let's ask this in Suffolk...
It’s very hard to tell from the paper trail how families of children with SEND are plugged into this process. Because of this, it’s hard to tell how many families are feeling the warm glow of better services in the areas that have been told to improve by inspectors.
But speak to families in Suffolk, and there’s a sizeable gap between the rosy picture painted in their local area's Ministerial letter and the situation that families are still facing. Suffolk was inspected in late 2016, and it was told to put together a written statement of action in February 2017. Their Ministerial letter arrived in March 2018; it praised the local area for the progress it had made. Comments include:
“...the commitment of local leaders to working together… …has enabled you to act quickly to address delays with improving services and ensured a realistic assessment of the progress you are making.”
“...the use of a digital approach to special needs assessments is putting families at the heart of the EHC process”
“I am reassured that SEND services are improving in Suffolk”
Meanwhile, Suffolk’s Parent Carer Network (SPCN) asked its members what their experience of the first few months of 2018 had been like. SPCN collected and assessed 35 pages of parental input, some of it highly distressing in content. SPCN are closer to local family experiences than anyone else. Here’s what they’ve reported:
“It is evident from the responses received that the lived experience of children, young people and families is not where it should be, given the assurances SPCN have received about the changes in services and improvements in culture. There is a significant way to go before it will address the concerns of families.”
“It is also concerning that the experiences of families are across transfers, annual reviews and new EHCP applications - which could evidence a much deeper cultural shift is required.”
“The lengths of time taken to produce annual reviews, the lack of empathy and understanding with families - including getting the name of the young person wrong - and the continued lack of a co-ordinated assessment process across education, health and care require urgent work.”
“Health and care services need to change their ways of working to provide meaningful and lawful assessments as they are statutorily required to do.”
“SPCN recognise that strategic change was necessary and that, hopefully, some of the areas that have been worked on at a strategic level will come to fruition during 2018. However, the most urgent need now is to change the experiences of children, young people and families and to provide a service which correctly identifies, assesses and meets their needs and where people are valued and the process co-produced.”
“Fundamentally, Suffolk commissioners and providers need to place children, young people and families at the heart of everything they do and co-produce at an individual level to ensure that families no longer have to fight to have their child/young person’s needs met.”
Suffolk Parent Carer Network (SPCN)
Read the Ministerial letter side-by-side with the testimony from the Suffolk Parent Carer Network, and it’s hard to tell that they are talking about the same local area. But they are – and it’s hard to believe that a local area, which, by its own admission, still has so much to do to improve is now going to be subject to such light-touch help and oversight.
Why does this matter?
It matters, because SEND is a sector desperately short of meaningful & sustainable accountability. The Ofsted / CQC local area SEND inspections are the nearest thing the sector has to it – but they’re a one-shot gig. Inspectors have to visit every one of England’s 152 local areas by 2021 – but for now, that’s as far as the arrangement goes.
The DfE told us that they “have been encouraged by the commitment of [local area] leaders to using the local area SEND inspections as a catalyst to improve services.” But as things stand, these inspections are going to be a one-off. Once inspectors have delivered their judgements, their work is done, leaving accountability in the tender hands of DfE civil servants, their specialist consultant retainers - and ultimately their Minister, Nadhim Zahawi.
We're calling for Ofsted SEND inspections to be an ongoing cycle
There are powerful arguments for turning the local area SEND inspection process into a cycle, ensuring that local area SEND services will be inspected more than once in their bureaucratic lifetime. This is something that we, at Special Needs Jungle, have said repeatedly. Today, we are publicly calling for it - it's clearly vital for the continuing improvement of SEND. We know that we are far from the only ones who want this - even Ofsted themselves are said to be in favour of it.
Nadhim Zahawi is still relatively new to the world of SEND, but this BBC interview from March gives us some idea of Ministerial thresholds of acceptability. Mr Zahawi apparently has. "yet to see an EHCP that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on." Mr Zahawi recently congratulated local authorities for their efforts in transferring statements over to the new SEND system, saying the EHCPs were “of the highest quality” – something which anyone involved in the deranged scramble of the last few months can disprove without breaking a sweat.
It’s early days yet, but there are signs that key bits of the strategic SEND accountability process are reverting back to the way things were prior to the inspections: a glossy, light-touch, consultant-led approach, with a threshold for acceptable progress that’s so low, it’d pose a serious challenge to a professional limbo dancer.
The old-school approach didn’t work before the inspections. It’s even less likely to work now, with all local areas facing acute financial pressure.
Take Surrey – inspected in 2016, it has put together a written statement of action that’s only half-implemented. Despite this, the Minister has decided Surrey now only needs light-touch monitoring. Subsequently, Surrey has announced it’s planning £20 million of cuts to its SEND services – to the sound of silence from Whitehall. Only a crowdfunded, parent-led judicial review Surrey will soon be receiving stands in the way of these cuts.
You would have to be borderline delusional to believe that Surrey can successfully deliver its written statement of action in this environment. Yet here we are, once again, with parents and the judiciary acting as the last line of meaningful accountability. This isn’t how things should be. At all.