Chaos, mistrust, poor inclusion, and no communication: How Kent’s SEND provision has failed its disabled children and their families

With Matt Keer

title with map of kent underlaid

Dear God, Kent, how can you fail children and young people with disabilities and their parents so badly? It’s a low bar to limbo under, but Kent has managed it.

The council and the local health authority failed their Ofsted and CQC area SEND inspection in 2019 in nine areas. Three and a half years on, inspectors came calling again. Despite the pandemic, that’s still plenty of time to get your act together, at least a little bit. But no. Kent’s LA and health provision failed again in EVERY SINGLE ONE of the previously failed areas. Sadly, they’re not the first to this dubious distinction. Sefton, Merseyside, and Devon in 2019 and 2022 respectively also went out for a duck.

And most disgustingly, Kent was one of the “pathfinders” that tested out the 2014 reforms before they became law, so there really is no excuse whatsoever.

After an inspection fail, chastened area leaders usually at least try to improve their practice. Another area, Kingston upon Thames, had its revisit inspection report published yesterday and passed in all four areas of “significant weakness”. This doesn’t mean they’re now brilliant, as parents in Kingston will attest, but at least they’re trying and making headway. But Kent, it seems, has doubled down on its rubbishness, and has not made any “sufficient improvements” in any of the areas of “significant weakness” found by the inspection team. And of course, as inspectors mainly concentrate on these “significant weaknesses” in the revisit, the actual practice is probably much worse across the board.

This isn’t a victimless crime. Let’s never forget that underneath the boot of all this dreadful practice are vulnerable children and young adults whose needs are not being met and consequently, whose potential is more likely to go unfulfilled. It’s hard enough for young people with SEND to get into any kind of employment. If they’re in Kent, it’s going to take superhuman efforts by them and their supporting adults to thrive against the odds thrown at them by this local area.

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Parents strike back

More than 2000 parents responded to the online survey that precedes a revisit. The inspection team noted, “Parental confidence in the local area’s ability to meet their children’s needs is at an all-time low.”

“Representing the views of many, one aggrieved parent stated: ‘Communication is poor; co-production is non-existent… It feels as though my son’s needs are not being prioritised, and they don’t care. They are incompetent.’ Three-quarters of parents who completed Ofsted’s inspection survey said that they do not feel supported by the local area in identifying and providing the right help and support for their child with SEND.
Desperate and dispirited parents repeatedly told inspectors about their experiences, particularly of poor communication. Examples were evidenced where parents and school staff had attempted to call SEN officers 40 or 50 times with no response. The same lack of response was reported for email communication. Parents consistently describe a system that is inconsistent and too hard to navigate, and that there is a lack of response when they complain or seek help. Parents do not feel that there is accountability in the area’s SEND systems.
Several parents and some headteachers commented on ‘insensitive’ and ‘unhelpful’ communication from leaders which made parents feel they were being blamed for the ‘cost’ of having a child or young person with SEND. This messaging appears to have reinforced the idea in parents’ minds that schools may not routinely help their children with SEND.”

Kent SEND area inspection report

Below in bold is what inspectors found to be severely lacking in 2019 and in italics is what they found this time around and the lack of improvement is stark:

  1. A widely held concern of parents that the local area is not able, or in some cases not willing, to meet their children’s needs: “It is parents’ widely held belief that an EHC plan is essential to ensure their child’s needs are met. Several commented that the only way to get action was through a direct appeal to their local member of parliament. Requests for assessment, appeals to tribunal and demand for special school and independent special school places have continued to increase. The Kent area now has a 20% higher rate of children and young people on EHC Plans than the England average.”
  2. A variable quality of provision and commitment to inclusion in schools, and the lack of willingness of some schools to accommodate children and young people with SEND: “The lack of willingness of some schools to accommodate children with SEND has continued. There is a widely held view among parents and some schools that certain secondary schools, in particular, are not inclusive.
  3. That parents and carers have a limited role in reviewing and designing services for children and young people with SEND: “..since April 2022 [new PCF] PACT have trebled their membership. However …two-thirds of parents who responded…said that they had not heard of PACT, and approximately 90% reported no involvement in reviewing or developing services”
  4. An inability of current joint commissioning arrangements to address known gaps and eliminate longstanding weaknesses in the services for children and young people with SEND: “While there have been notable improvements in the joint commissioning process, leaders recognise that much of this work is known to be at an early stage of development. Historic weaknesses and gaps are not sufficiently addressed.”
  5. Poor standards achieved, and progress made, by too many children and young people with SEND: “Area leaders currently hold only a very partial view of the quality of provision and consequent rates of progress and standards achieved by children and young people with SEND. This is caused by fragmented relationships with schools, differing processes in different localities, and an absence of data.”
  6. The inconsistent quality of the EHC process; a lack of up-to-date assessments and limited contributions from health and care professionals; and poor processes to check and review the quality of EHC plans. “When an EHC plan is identified as requiring improvement during the audit process, the required improvements never get made… One plan that inspectors sampled included all health needs for the child or young person as well as those that related to their SEND needs. This allowed practitioners to provide a holistic approach to care. However, other plans reviewed identified health or social care needs, but there was no evident health professional or social care involvement or planned care…Some EHC plans still contain blank sectionsand targets are sometimes generic or ambiguous and not specific to the individual child or young person.
  7. Weak governance of SEND arrangements across the EHC system at strategic and operational level and an absence of robust action plans to address known weaknesses: “Repeated changes in staffing at all levels… internal restructuring, the array of projects and plans at different stages…a major lack of communication and the impact of the COVID pandemic all combine to generate the current sense of chaos and uncertainty. There is no commonly understood, or agreed, area-wide ambition for children and young people with SEND…There is an unacceptably weak understanding, across the range of stakeholders, including those who are charged with delivering and managing provisions and services, of the gravity of the unsustainable position that the Kent area is in.
  8. Unacceptable waiting times for children and young people to be seen by some health services, particularly CAMHS, tier two services, SALT, the wheelchair service, and ASD and ADHD assessment and review: “The particularly unacceptable waiting times for children on the neurodevelopmental pathway, identified at the 2019 inspection, have not improved. Extensive waits, for up to four years, impact on education provision and access to other services, and cause immense stress to children and families.
  9. A lack of effective systems to review and improve outcomes for those children and young people whose progress to date has been limited by weaknesses in provision: “Little evidence was established during the inspection to indicate that leaders had planned or implemented systems for identifying children and young people adversely affected by previous weaknesses in provision. Consequently, little has been done to enable such children and young people to catch up and secure improved outcomes.”

The fail didn’t come as a surprise, least of all by families, as this parent told me:

“As a parent I am not surprised, and am pleased Ofsted have identified the key points for improvement. To see the word chaotic used in the letter to describe the support given to the most vulnerable group of young children is shocking, and Kent need to be held to account for the families they have let down consistently over the last few years. An apology letter from them is not enough. There is no leadership of SEND across the county and this needs sorting quickly so more children aren’t impacted.”

Kent parent of a child with SEND

A massive financial black hole

Kent was also part of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s report earlier this year that we wrote about here. In their report, TIBJ had some astonishing quotes from Kent’s head of SEND, which shows the mindset of officials; they know they’re crap and they don’t care:

“Kent’s deficit has reached £103m – in cash terms, the largest in the country. In a candid interview the council’s special educational needs and disabilities director, Mark Walker, said parents had lost faith in the ability of Kent’s mainstream schools to meet their children’s needs. As a result, he explained, the council receives a higher proportion of EHC plan applications from parents than schools. What parents want, Walker said, is places at expensive independent schools and he blames the SEND Tribunal, which hears appeals against local authority decisions, for helping them get their way. In 2020-21, this national independent tribunal ruled in favour of parents in 96% of cases.”

Cornwall to Newcastle: children with disabilities forced to travel hundreds of miles for school

The claim from this ray of Kent SEND sunshine quoted above shows culture is an issue from the top down. And, no, Mr Walker, the Tribunal uses actual evidence and, let me tell you, no parent wants to spend months of their life on endless paperwork and the stress of a tribunal hearing, all the while watching their child become more traumatised because they’re not in the right setting. In fact, it is clear from the inspectors’ finding from point one above, that the main reason parents feel the need to obtain an EHCP is that it’s the ONLY way for their children’s needs to be met, and it’s a hell of an arduous journey to get one. I hope you’re proud, Mr Walker.

It’s clear that this poor attitude filters down, with schools feeling bold enough to parent-blame to inspectors, claiming that “specialist places are not allocated rigorously according to need, but rather in response to the level of challenge from parents and politicians.” This trope is well overdue for binning. Yes, it is true that the parents who can fight are more likely to get the right provision for their children but this is NOT their fault. It is YOUR fault, schools, for not supporting them to either stay in mainstream or helping those parents whose child needs a specialist place, but who cannot navigate the system. Do you get it now?

It’s not all bad news

Inspectors did praise school nursing, the new parent carer forum, Kent SENDIASS, more cohesive joint commissioning including a “keyworker programme”, and more specialist places planned. As ever there are “plans” cited by inspectors, but plans are not actual improvements, especially in an area where it was noted, “An air of mistrust continues. While some school leaders believe relationships and communication are improving, others, including some multiacademy trusts, do not feel included in important decisions or consulted with fully.

What happens now? SNJ’s Matt Keer explains…

At this point, the fizzling joke-shop grenade of accountability gets passed over to the Department for Education (DfE) and NHS England. The DfE will normally say that “where a council does not meet requirements to provide appropriate support for [SEND] children, we will not hesitate to take action that prioritises their needs, and brings about rapid improvement.”

Let’s take a look at what ‘we will not hesitate to take action’ looks like in practice.

The DfE and NHS England will normally tell the local area to produce an Accelerated Progress Plan. These don’t often get published, so it’s unclear exactly how they differ from the improvement arrangements that were already in place prior to the revisit failure. But from what we can tell, there will be meetings. Lots more meetings.

As Kent has completely failed, Whitehall will probably consider issuing a formal improvement notice, or a statutory direction to improve its services. That process normally takes a few months. If this is the case, a retired local authority bigwig will be wheeled out of comfortable cryogenic suspension to oversee the improvement process. This, again, principally involves a lot more meetings, RAG charts, and a lengthy report – a cycle that normally lasts at least a year.

Birmingham LA has already been through this process. Four years after its SEND inspection, 18 months after its SEND revisit, and 12 months after the appointment of a Commissioner, Birmingham’s statutory direction has yet to demonstrate system impact - and you’d need a high-end electron microscope to detect change for the better for Birmingham’s SEND families. To add to the “fun”, Kent also has the largest SEND deficit in the country. Because of this, the DfE is lining Kent up for the next wave of its financial ‘safety valve’ bailout scheme. See what this looks like here, and how the consequences of the schemes shape up here.

Kent already has plans in the works. In the summer, they identified “parental perception / lack of confidence” as the number one challenge they face. The LA planned a ‘hard reset’ of their SEND service, with local mainstream schools doing most of the heavy lifting to build “parental confidence.” You’ll also be delighted to hear that a crack team of (highly-paid) consultants are inbound to help relieve Kent’s burden.

Kent’s plan won’t survive contact with reality. It shouldn’t have survived the Ofsted / CQC revisit. But it’s entirely in keeping with the DfE’s ‘safety valve’ approach - so it’s likely to be rolled out, impacting mainstream schools and families who are struggling to keep body and soul knitted together.

Back in 2019, the Education Select Committee astutely concluded that “the distance between young people’s lived experience, their families’ struggles and Ministers’ desks is just too far.” Three years and one SEND Green Paper on, the DfE and its new ministers have a chance to show Kent’s parents and teachers that they mean it when they say they won’t hesitate to make rapid improvements.

Not everyone here is losing out though. You might wonder what happens to a Director of Children’s Services who oversees SEND failure on this scale, for this long. Kent’s leadership are new, but the previous incumbent has found another gig. He’s now the commissioner overseeing improvement in Devon LA’s children’s social care. Appointed by…the DfE.

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