Ofsted/CQC SEND inspectors dropping by soon, but in learning mode

It seems like a lifetime ago now – but there was a time when local SEND services were subjected to at least some external accountability. 

Ofsted & the Care Quality Commission’s five-year programme of local area SEND inspections in England was paused back in March. If you want to see what these inspections are about, how they work and how they’ve progressed, then check out this article here.

With COVID-19 still very much around, there’s little prospect of these local area SEND inspections restarting any time soon. In the meantime, Ofsted & CQC teams haven’t been sat on their backsides. Although they can’t inspect, they can gather information – and they’ve spent the last few months designing a programme of ‘interim’ SEND visits, which they announced yesterday.

What’s the point of these interim visits?

Ofsted & CQC want the interim visits to focus on learning how the pandemic has affected children and young people with SEND. For example, whether they got the right support at the right time under lockdown, and whether they’re getting it now.

They keen to emphasise that they aren’t pitching the interim visits as inspections, but as learning opportunities for local government, central government, and health organisations. So this isn’t inspection – it’s an intelligence gathering and dissemination exercise for other people to act on. 

The idea is to help ‘local areas’ (that’s the local authority, plus the NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups that operate inside the local authority) better understand how the pandemic has affected children and young people with SEND. 

What will they learn?

Ofsted & CQC want to learn:

  • what local area actions have worked well in supporting children & young people with SEND under pandemic conditions;
  • what the key challenges have been for the local area, and what hasn’t worked well;
  • what plans the local area has for supporting these children and young people in the future – particularly as some of their needs will have changed as a result of the pandemic.

If the local area wants to raise anything else during the visit, they’re free to do so. 

These interim visits are carefully described as collaborative learning exercises, not subject-object inspections. But Ofsted & CQC will be asking questions of the local area, and they will also use what they learn from these interim visits to help them work out when and how to restart local area SEND inspections. 

Which local areas will get an interim visit?

That’s yet to be determined. It’s certainly not going to be all 151 local areas. The interim visits will take place over the autumn, winter and spring, most likely arranged and carried out in several phases, and timings are bound to be affected by local and national pandemic conditions. 

Ofsted & CQC want to carry out visits in all of England’s 10 educational regions, and they want to visit a broad sample of local areas: different population types, urban boroughs and rural counties, those that did well in their local area SEND inspections, and those that didn’t.

But there’s a very important condition: local area participation is voluntary.  

If Ofsted & CQC ask a local area if they can come and visit, then the local area can say no. They might have good reasons for saying no – they might be knee-deep in a local COVID-19 outbreak. Or the local area just might not fancy the idea of external scrutiny; after all, this is a sector that’s not exactly famous for its respect for external scrutiny. 

Either way, the only local areas that’ll get visited will be those that explicitly agree to it in writing. That’s a long way less than ideal – particularly when you look at what’s happening elsewhere in Ofsted’s patch. 

Upcoming school visits

Separately, Ofsted will be visiting schools in the coming months to see how they are coping with pandemic conditions. But schools won’t be getting a choice about whether they are visited or not.

And to add to the fun, both the inspectors’ request to visit, and the local area’s response, will remain confidential. So if your local area gets asked and doesn’t fancy it, you’ll be none the wiser.

How will these interim visits work?

Each visit will last two days. As with the local area SEND inspections, there’ll be three people in the team: two from Ofsted, one from CQC. One of the Ofsted people will be from their social care division. This is the first time that social care inspectors will have dipped their toe into local area SEND.

The Ofsted & CQC team will spend time gathering background data before the visit, but one thing that they are going to rely heavily on is a case study approach. 

For each local area they visit, Ofsted & CQC will select 4-6 children and young people with SEND, and examine their experiences under the pandemic closely. 

The good news is that they aren’t going to just look at children and young people with education-heavy EHCPs. They want at least two of the chosen case studies to be children supported via SEN Support (rather than via an EHCP), and they want at least three of the case studies to be receiving multi-agency support, presumably to see how well services work together.

The less welcome news is that the local area plays a role in selecting the sample of potential case studies for the visiting team to choose from. The local area provides a list of children and young people who form the sample, the visiting Ofsted & CQC team will “work with local areas to agree the sample,” and the visiting team picks the case studies. It’s not obvious from this what would prevent the local area from cherry-picking candidates for the sample.

Parental involvement

Once the case studies are selected, the chosen families will be able to talk directly to the Ofsted & CQC team about their experiences. The team will also talk to the education, health and social care professionals that support the children and young people in the case studies.

The interim visit approach relies heavily on these case studies. So a lot depends on how representative the case studies are of experiences within the local area. That’s a tough ask with a sample size this small. On the other hand, the use of case studies should mean that there’s a more direct focus on the lived experience of children and young people with SEND.

If you live in the local area and your children or young person isn’t selected to be a case study, you shouldn’t be out of the process entirely – Ofsted will be setting up online surveys for parents, and also for young people with SEND over the age of 16.

Remember, Ofsted and CQC aren’t in inspection mode here – they’re in information-gathering mode. They’ll take action if they come across cases where children are at immediate risk of significant harm – but they won’t act if your local area is acting unlawfully.

What happens after the interim visit?

Once it’s completed, the Ofsted & CQC team will give local area management some verbal feedback on what they’ve learned from the visit. Eventually, they’ll send the local area a letter summarising their findings, and a copy of the letter will also go to the Department for Education and NHS England. As this isn’t an inspection, the letter won’t contain any formal judgements or recommendations.

When do families get to see the letter about their local area? They don’t automatically get to see it. If the local area wants to publish the letter, then they’re free to do so. But they don’t have to, and Ofsted & CQC say that they’ll “maintain the confidentiality of these notes as far as possible.”

Again, this stands in sharp contrast to how Ofsted are running things with their programme of interim school visits. If your kid’s school gets an interim visit from Ofsted, then you’ll get a letter showing what the visiting team learned. 

So do parents and front-line professionals get to learn anything at all from these visits?

Yes – eventually, and at a high level. 

Although Ofsted & CQC won’t be publishing letters about visits to individual local areas, they will be publishing national-level reports, with the key findings of their visits. They’re planning a series of interim reports as they go, with a final summary report pencilled in for the spring of 2021. We will be watching closely.

These national-level reports won’t name any local areas (unless they want to be named), and they certainly won’t name any individuals in the case studies. What they’re intended to do is to provide a national overview of what’s worked well and what hasn’t worked under lockdown. It's aimed at better informing people who manage the SEND system at a national level, and to give clear, concrete examples via anonymised case studies.

Are they worth doing?

That might not sound like much if you’re looking for your local area to be held to account for its performance in recent months, and these visits are certainly no substitute for proper accountability.

But it’s a still worthwhile exercise. From what I’ve seen, the quality of information flowing from local government to central government about SEND during the pandemic has been appallingly lax and partial. A series of FOI responses and an unintentionally very revealing legal judgement strongly suggest that Whitehall is not getting detailed, reliable, and impartial information about the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people with SEND from those people paid to make the SEND system work. 

Ofsted & CQC’s programme of interim local area SEND visits will help to plug that gap. It’s not perfect - and in a better world, its output should be as transparent to parents as Ofsted’s programme of interim school visits. But if they visit your local area, it’s still worth getting involved.

Matt and Tania are both involved in the Ofsted SEND Stakeholders Advisory Group. We'll be holding an SNJ In Conversation with Nick Whittaker, Ofsted's Lead Specialist Inspector for SEND, later in the autumn term.

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Matt Keer

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