A guide to Ofsted and CQC’s “new, improved” Local Area SEND Inspections 2023 (Part 2)

Early this year, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) will be kicking off a new approach to inspecting local area SEND services. What will these look like, how will they differ from previous inspections, and what can families do to get their voices heard?

Last week, we published an overview of how the first round of local area SEND inspections went. The new inspections are billed at being more in depth and rigorous. Let’s find out what that means…

The new area SEND inspection system

So how is the new inspection system going to be different from the one that’s just wound up? You can read Ofsted Senior HMI for SEND, Kathryn Rudd’s vision in her article for SNJ here and you can find full details of the inspection handbook here, but in summary:

  1. Firstly, these will be a cycle of inspections, not a one-and-done set like the last lot. The standard cycle will still be one area SEND inspection every five years – but if local area performance is inconsistent or worse, then there will also be monitoring inspections that will happen sooner. These inspections will be interspersed with engagement meetings “to keep a spotlight on SEND provision.
  2. Second, the purpose of inspection will change slightly. The new inspections will be broader in scope, to check “the effectiveness of the local area partnership’s arrangements for children and young people with SEND [and] where appropriate, recommend what the local area partnership should do to improve the arrangements.”
  3. Third, the first set of inspections focused mostly on education and health aspects of SEND services. The new framework will also look at the social care side of the SEND house, bringing Ofsted’s social care inspectors onto inspection teams for the first time.
  4. Fourth, the new area SEND inspections will look at aspects of alternative provision (AP) for the first time, as well as SEND services.
  5. Fifth — and probably most significantly — Ofsted and CQC have repeatedly stated that with the new area SEND inspections, they want to focus more on how well services work “to improve the experiences and outcomes of children and young people with SEND.”

What about legal duties?

Ofsted want to make it clear that they will still be looking at how well a local area performs its statutory duties. Kathryn Rudd told us:

“…it will not be enough for local areas to simply meet legal duties. The strategies and plans [local areas] have in place must be making a real difference to, and improve the lives of, children and young people with SEND and their families.”

Kathryn Rudd, Ofsted Senior HMI for SEND

That sounds great. The stated ambition to embed legal studies as an expected, non-negotiable minimum definitely sounds like a good thing. And in theory, there isn’t an either/or here.

But it’s slightly worrying to read this take - because in the first round of local area SEND inspections and revisits, it was entirely possible for local areas to fail to meet their legal duties – sometimes spectacularly so – without inspectors identifying that as a “significant weakness”.

For several local area inspections and revisits – including some conducted as recently as a few months ago – failure to meet some very basic statutory duties appeared to be judged as no big deal.

How will the SEND Review change things?

Ofsted and CQC are keen to emphasise that they don’t want to wait for the SEND Review and Green Paper to play out. Last month, Amanda Spielman (His Majesty’s Chief Inspector, and head of Ofsted) said:

“Given the persistent and worsening issues in the SEND system, we have been clear throughout that we cannot wait to act. To do so would risk creating an unacceptable accountability gap in a system that needs to improve urgently.”

Amanda Spielman

That sounds magnificently proactive. But bear in mind that Ofsted and CQC were first tasked to put this new inspection framework together in mid-2018. That was over four years ago, and the new inspection system has only just emerged.

If the SEND Review and Green Paper eventually deliver major changes to the SEND system, it’s likely that the area SEND inspection framework and handbook will flex in response.

What are inspectors looking for?

The inspection handbook says that the area SEND inspection teams will be evaluating local area performance against two main criteria:

  1. The impact of the local area partnership’s SEND arrangements on the experiences and outcomes of children and young people with SEND: Inspectors here will be looking at things like how well the local area identifies need, meets need, and prepares children and young people for next steps - and also how children and young people with SEND and their families are involved at an individual level.
  2. How local area partners work together to plan, evaluate and develop the SEND system: This is more standard inspection stuff, basically checking how well local leaders and systems work.  It includes things like looking at leaders’ ambitions, strategies, commissioning, joint working, and whether leaders meaningfully engage and work with children and young people with SEND and their families.

The emphasis on improving the lived experiences and outcomes for children and young people with SEND is a good thing - but it will be a big challenge to collect reliable and valid inspection evidence.

Inspectors will be checking the same sources of data that they used in previous inspections – but they’ll also be making more extensive use of survey information from children and young people with SEND, and they’ll also be picking out a small number of cases (probably around six in each local area) to track in depth.

This makes inspection evidence about individuals potentially far more significant than it used to be. The process of selecting these individuals for in-depth tracking will therefore be an important and sensitive part of the inspection process. The inspectors will always choose the individual cases to track – but from the detail that’s publicly available, it looks like that choice will be made from a list supplied by the local area.

It is possible for inspectors to conduct intensive cross-matching of person-level data with other sources, to eliminate the risk that a local area might remove difficult cases from the list – let’s hope they do so.

What will inspection outcomes look like?

The new area SEND inspections won’t use the standard Ofsted grading system of ‘outstanding’ through to ‘inadequate.’ Instead, there will be three possible outcomes, each fairly wordy:

Top grade: The best outcome a local area can get is this:

“The local area partnership’s SEND arrangements typically lead to positive experiences and outcomes for children and young people with SEND. The local area partnership is taking action where improvements are needed.”

The way this is phrased, and the language in the handbook about what it takes to get this top grade, raise eyebrows. The language is a lot weaker than what it takes to get the top grade in Ofsted’s school inspections and children’s services inspections. Put bluntly, a local area SEND service can get top marks without being expected to deliver anything like an outstanding quality of service.

This outcome was tweaked following consultation. The post-consultation documents show that some local authority reps and professionals argued that the original proposed top outcome “set the bar too high.”

We asked Ofsted what “typical” means when they make these judgements. This is what they said:

“We know that even in the stronger local areas there are often still some areas of weakness and room for improvement. Therefore, even where positive experiences and outcomes are typical, this will not be the case for all children and young people with SEND.

“In this context ‘typical’ means that positive experiences and outcomes are representative of what usually happens to most children and young people with SEND in a local area.”

Ofsted spokesperson

So that’s what it takes. If you’re a local area that gets this top outcome, you’ll be meeting up with inspectors for a regular chat, but you probably won’t get inspected again for another five years.

Middle grade pass

Middle grade: The middle outcome in the new area SEND inspection reads like this:

The local area partnership’s arrangements lead to inconsistent experiences and outcomes for children and young people with SEND. The local area partnership must work jointly to make improvements.”

A local area will probably get this outcome if experiences and outcomes for children and young people with SEND aren’t typically strong, or if there are minor areas for improvement that the local area isn’t already taking effective action to sort out.

If this is the outcome, then the local area’s next full inspection will be brought forward – usually to within three years, rather than five – but there won’t be intermediate monitoring inspections.

Ofsted SEND Failing grade

Failing grade: That leaves the bottom possible outcome:

There are widespread and/or systemic failings leading to significant concerns about the experiences and outcomes of children and young people with SEND, which the local area partnership must address urgently.”

What sort of things would trigger this outcome? According to the handbook, inspectors will reach for this outcome when they, “have identified one or more areas for priority action; this will happen when there are significant concerns about the experiences and outcomes of children and young people, because of particular systemic or widespread failings that have a significant negative impact on the experiences and outcomes of children and young people.”

That’s broadly similar to the previous inspection setup: there’s no formal definition of how bad things are to be considered a ‘priority action’, it’s mostly a matter of inspector judgement.

If a local area gets this outcome then, like the previous setup, they have to produce a plan showing how they are going to improve things. Before, this was known as a ‘written statement of action.’ Now, it’s got another, clunkier name: a priority action plan (area SEND).

If an area gets a failing grade, roughly 18 months after the inspection, it will get a monitoring inspection. This will concentrate on the areas for priority action identified in the previous full inspection, similar to the previous revisit system. The handbook says that if any new significant weaknesses get identified during the monitoring inspection, they’ll get reported.

How can parents get involved in these inspections?

The notification process for these inspections will still largely be via the local area. Keep an eye on SNJ’s social media feeds, as we’ll be providing notifications as soon as we hear from inspectors, as we have always done.

There are two main ways parents can input into an area SEND inspection.

  1. A survey,
  2. A meeting with inspectors (usually arranged by the parent carer forum or representative groups of parents).

If your child’s case is one of the few that inspectors will focus on for tracking during the inspection, then you can expect separate, in-depth conversations with inspectors.

This setup is fairly similar to the last set of SEND inspections. One important difference is that parental engagement will tend to happen earlier in the inspection process. This is a good thing because it should allow inspectors better opportunities to follow up on the evidence that parents provide, feeding into the ‘lines of inspection inquiry’ that run through the process like a stick of rock.

Combine this with the case tracking, and the increased focus on the experience and outcomes for our kids, and it should mean that parental evidence plays a more important part in these inspections.

SNJ’s eyes are watching: Inspectors mind your language!

We’ll be watching this closely – particularly how parental evidence is framed and described in the inspection letters. All too often, parental evidence has been presented in sentimental and emotional terms: area SEND leaders ‘assess’, school staff ‘report’, whereas parents and carers ‘feel,’ ‘are confident,’ or ‘are anxious’.

That has to stop – even more now than before. The lived experiences and outcomes of children and young people are central to the new area SEND inspections. Parents and carers are almost always better placed to provide evidence for this issue than any other group that supports children and young people. Kids don’t live their lives through PowerPoint and RAG (Red, Amber, Green) charts.

The last set of local area SEND inspections weren’t without their problems. Many families are still waiting to see any practical improvements to the experiences and outcomes for their kids. The new inspection system has some flaws too - but many of the changes that have been made are positive, and there’s not much else out there that’s capable of driving change at a system level.

Get involved in them, if you can – and report back to us on how they’ve gone!

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Matt Keer
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