Ofsted asks: How well do mainstream schools support SEND?

with Matt Keer

Ofsted has published a new piece of research entitled “Supporting SEND”. It’s a limited, qualitative piece of work and was conducted before the pandemic. While this means the pandemic can’t be blamed for deficits in SEND provision, it is highly unlikely to have improved matters

The research showed: 

  • gaps in external provision and training
  • lack of coordination between services
  • lack of accountability
  • weak co-production

The research focused on just 21 pupils in seven mainstream schools from two local authorities. The children were selected by the schools themselves. While the researchers say this is so that those who took part felt confident and comfortable, schools may, of course, be slightly biased in the selection. Ofsted recognises the study is unlikely to be representative of the population of pupils with SEND in mainstream schools but its findings will be familiar to many, nonetheless.

We’re just focusing on a few areas because we didn’t receive the report until late Wednesday.

Understanding and identifying SEND 

The study found while schools often aimed to use a pupil-centred approach, staff didn’t always know their pupils well enough to identify needs or properly plan provision. Thisresulted in a negative impact on their experiences, learning and development”, in particular for those children on SEN Support, without EHCPs or those the SENCO didn’t know well. 

Additionally, these pupils on SEND support were less likely to have their needs identified accurately, perhaps because of a lack of specialist SEND knowledge and/or a lack of expert needs assessment. It also meant staff misunderstood when a child “adopting coping strategies that masked the difficulties they were experiencing.”

The early use of external experts is something the SEND Code of Practice specifically recommends but it clearly isn’t being implemented. There is clearly, even by this small sample, too much variability in the experiences of individual pupils with SEND.

Conversely, when a child was well-understood, and the school had high expectations and positive relationships building on strengths, their needs were more likely to be identified and supported with a positive impact on pupil progress. The report showed some pupils thriving and well-included while others had a more limited curriculum or were excluded from particular events and activities. 

Use of TAs

The research found that pupils with SEND regularly spent time outside the main classroom working on interventions with teaching assistants (TAs), despite some concerns about social exclusion and over-reliance on a single adult.

As everyone knows, this is a pattern that has continued in mainstream schools for many years. This is not inclusion. It means these children have less time with the qualified teacher who has the subject knowledge the TA doesn’t and so may miss chunks of the curriculum.

Ofsted said, “This raises concerns about pupils with SEND having full access to the high-quality teaching that they need in order to have a chance of success…Not only does this imply that regular learning loss will occur in some areas for these pupils, but also that the curriculum that they are offered does not have the same ambition as for their peers.” 

  • Because of missed learning, some pupils were not able to understand the curriculum being taught and were not enabled to catch up with these knowledge gaps before moving on.

“When this occurs, pupils are likely to continue to experience difficulties, gaps in their understanding will widen and they will then not have the best chance to succeed in the future.”

Working with parents

Many, if not most, parents of children with SEND will recognise the findings of this report, despite its small size.

  • When schools developed positive and trusting relationships with families, children’s needs were more effectively identified. Parents were also more likely to be confident about the school’s broader approach to inclusion. 
  • It’s not enough for co-production to be something in name only – “to be effective, pupils, parents and carers should be involved as fully as possible in decision-making about new provision and adaptations to existing support plans and packages.”
  • Some children with SEND didn’t have a support plan at all, meaning there was no graduated approach and no coproduction at all.  

“We heard of examples of home–school collaboration that enabled the identification of need and provision being put in place swiftly… … We also found some evidence of weak information-sharing between home and school affecting the identification of need.”

“Some parents and carers experienced inconsistent levels of communication about their child’s needs and provision. In one significant example of a school failing to keep parents and carers informed, Harper’s parent was unaware that the school considered their child to have SEND until they were asked, by the school, if they would take part in this research…The lack of open information-sharing between the school and the parent likely contributed to the fact that Harper’s needs had not been accurately identified at the time of the study and effective provision did not appear to have been put in place.”

Supporting SEND, Ofsted, May 2021
  • Most of the parents and carers who participated still felt that the school would listen to them if needed and that their child’s school experiences were generally positive.

SENCO role

“School SENCos were essential for mediating provision but experienced a range of challenges in carrying out their role.”

  • The study found that SENCos “fulfilled a crucial intermediary role between external agencies, schools and families.” And that strong relationships with families helped. But as our columnist, Hannah Maloney’s research has pointed out, lack of time means SENCOs cannot be as impactful as they would wish. This is something we hope will be addressed in the SEND Review. The SENCO role is a full-time role in itself and they shouldn’t, as this study acknowledges, also be full-time class teachers. 
  • Quote: “This indicates that for some schools, the role of the SENCo was not strongly prioritised. Some SENCos also reported frustration with delays and bureaucracy with both referrals and EHC plan assessments. These constrained how effectively they could perform their role.”
  • One SENCO described as a “long-standing trend” that needs were only identified once the pupil had reached upper key stage 1 or the start of key stage 2, rather than when the needs initially emerged. This SENCo had consequently carried out specific work with early years foundation stage (EYFS) staff to promote early identification.

Involvement from outside agencies

  • Specialised support from multi-agency services was valued, but some pupils still didn’t get enough help from the right people soon enough. 
  • Local authorities “had strong ambitions for multi-agency collaboration, but this did not always translate into improved practice and positive experiences for schools and families.” This quote really sums up much of what is wrong in SEND. LA leaders having positive meetings with health and social care about improving support but, too often, that’s where it ends and families see no improvements at all. LAs must investigate where it all goes wrong in between (hint: it's not the parent's or child's fault).
  • Parents highlighted long waiting times and an overly bureaucratic EHC plan process meant getting the right support in place too far too long. 
  • Because of the slow pace or lack of the right expert input, some parents felt they needed to pay for private reports to try to get the help put in faster. Ofsted says this is “dependent on families’ and schools’ financial and personal resources and so are not an inclusive alternative to provision from the SEND system.”

Variability in provision

The research shows, in a small way, how it relies on individuals doing a good job to keep the system going. But people move on, and if their replacement isn’t as good, everything fails. 

"While individuals are working hard and with care, this variability in provision is not an indicator of a system working effectively for children with SEND." Ofsted

“We know not all of those pupils need plans… So we need to give schools the confidence and the resources and support to support pupils in mainstream settings and then we need to give parents the confidence that that offer’s available… at the moment, some of that exists brilliantly across our schools and some of it doesn’t… so we’re working on that.” Assistant director for education, local authority 2

Ofsted is focusing more on SEND and family experience

None of these findings is news to families of course, but we hope it is more grist for the SEND Review mill. But at least now, SEND in mainstream is more of a priority for Ofsted than it used to be. 

Matt Keer, our resident statistician and accountability expert says Ofsted now appears to be taking mainstream SEND more seriously, whereas not so long ago it were arrogantly dismissive:

Four years ago, in their annual report, Ofsted told us that:

"There is no evidence from our school or local area inspections that mainstream schools, whether primary or secondary, are not welcoming pupils who have SEN and / or disabilities onto their rolls." 

That was an embarrassingly inept assessment - worse still, it wasn't even true. Ofsted had evidence showing just that - but they got it from parents, so it didn't matter.”

Matt Keer

These days, Ofsted places more of a premium on parental and young people’s input. They also include parents, including Matt and myself on (unpaid) advisory groups for developing inspections. But it is vital that when speaking to LAs during inspections, Ofsted contrast rigorously what they say with what parents tell them and reach a wide variety of families. The DfE should mandate that LAs inform all parents of SEND children via email, text, and through school when an area SEND inspection is to happen, so more have the opportunity to participate. 

LAs should also realise that policy doesn’t trump law.

The quotes for this research from local authority managers clearly demonstrates how LAs are placing their own policies above the law. This, in turn, places bureaucratic pressure on schools jump through hoops before an EHC assessment can be completed causing delays. 

One LA wanted a “rich quality of evidence… to enable the panels to make good decisions”  but some schools argue that demanding too much detail was a sign of not trusting teachers and asking for additional evidence to slow down the process. 

“I try and do my best [for] the pupils, collect the evidence, get all the evidence from the professionals involved, I'll submit an education and health care plan and then they'll come back and say ah, actually, we’re wanting this now, but that wasn't in their original criteria when I submitted it. So then I have to go back, get that information, submitted it, oh well now because if we’re waiting for that the educational psychologist report is out of date… sometimes I just feel the local authority are making it harder to get an education, health and care plan for the pupils.

SENCo, school 1, primary, local authority 1

“Whenever they come and talk to us at the Director’s briefing they tell us how much money they have saved on SEN because the budget is so high. But that has an impact on our pupils… they said how many EHCPs they’d turned down that month and I felt that that was very inappropriate because you don't fill all those forms in if you don't think a pupil has a need.”

Quote from headteacher

And health are often no better with hoop-jumping:

“we did… a complex needs referral to the paediatrician and we were told no because he had to have a speech and language referral first and then we have to act on those outcomes for three months. And if that doesn’t work which it still isn’t. So now we’ve got to re-refer."

SENCo, school 3, primary, local authority 1

Report quotes

Rather than a lot more comment, I’m going to just let the following quotes speak for themselves: 

“What the evidence highlights is the importance of all professionals within the SEND system working collaboratively to understand the child and co-produce the plans for provision with families. It also underlines how robust curriculum and subject knowledge alongside a strong understanding of SEND must be present to maximise the learning and development of pupils with SEND.”

“Our research found that many school staff used labels, such as autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyspraxia, to describe children with SEND. This suggests that practitioners should be familiar with the wide-ranging debate around the use of labels for SEND and the potential problems this can create for effective inclusive practice and possibly for pupils themselves”

“A headteacher … said they had waited 60 months for one pupil’s EHC plan to progress from assessment to ‘getting the plan approved’. This was apparently due to staffing issues in the local authority.”

“This important report is yet more compelling evidence to support what parents of deaf children have been saying for years. The SEND system isn’t fit for purpose and doesn’t deliver for everyone who relies on it.”

Ian Noon, Head of Policy at the National Deaf Children’s Society

Is it the process?

I would take issue with Ofsted’s following conclusion though:

“However, ultimately, the process was perceived as a barrier to timely access to specialist services for some pupils with SEND.”

No, it’s not the process. The process, as laid out in law, is not complex. It is the people who run the process – specifically, those within LAs whose goal is to save money as much as (or more than) meet need – who create the barrier. Once a parent or a school has applied for an EHC needs assessment, LAs must know that it is not done lightly and that many different strategies have been tried already. But they don’t want the cost so they prevaricate and blame the school, the parent, the process.. anyone except themselves. This will not change until the funding is separate from the assessment process.

Find the Report Link here.

Also out today re the new EHCP figures. Matt is analysing and we will bring them to you tomorrow.

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Tania Tirraoro

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