Ofsted: Disabled children “seriously affected in both care and education” during pandemic

Ofsted’s second report looking at how the pandemic has impacted children’s education and wellbeing has added more weight to existing evidence showing huge disparities in the experience of children during coronavirus, especially those with disabilities.

Echoing our own survey earlier this year, Ofsted found that parents and their children/young people with SEND were left struggling from the sudden withdrawal of essential services and isolation of lockdown. The loss of informal friends and family support left parents feeling vulnerable and the impact has intensified as time has gone on. 

The five reports published today are the result of over 900 “non-judgemental” visits during September and October to schools, further education and skills providers, early years settings and social care, as well as Special Education Needs and Disability (SEND). The aim was to give inspectors a view on how providers have coped with a challenging start to the new academic year. 

In general, Ofsted found some children of all ages and backgrounds, have lost some basic skills and learning as a result of school closures and restrictions on movement.

  • Children who were hardest hit by school closures and restrictions have regressed in some basic skills and learning
  • Some young children, who were previously potty-trained, have lapsed back into nappies, particularly those whose parents were unable to work flexibly
  • Older children have lost stamina in their reading and writing, some have lost physical fitness, others show signs of mental distress, including an increase in eating disorders and self-harm
  • Concerns remain about children who were out of sight during school closures, with falling referrals to social care teams raising fears that domestic neglect, exploitation or abuse is going undetected.

Ofsted's findings about children with SEND in the pandemic

Because of our focus on SEND, this is where we are going to concentrate this article. For transparency, as part of the Ofsted area SEND Stakeholder Advisory Group, I took part in a briefing yesterday about this report, where some of my insight comes from in addition to this report. 

The visits set out to understand: 

  1. How children and young people with SEND have experienced the pandemic so far? 
  2. What has worked well in supporting them? 
  3. What have the challenges been and what has not worked so well? 
  4. What are the plans for supporting these children and young people in the future? 

Ofsted is keen to focus on the lived experience of children and their families, keeping this at the heart. Inspectors from education, health and social care all participated, choosing a case-study approach to the study. They spoke to the parents and carers of 28 children and young people, along with the practitioners who work with them. Although they invited children and young people themselves to participate, none did. 

Inspectors also held discussions with education, health and social care leaders from the six areas visited, including CAMHS senior officials. 

The case-study children were chosen to reflect as wide a range as possible (given the small numbers) for gender, ethnicity, type and complexity of need, the range of professionals (including social care) supporting them and category of education provider. The small numbers inevitably meant a limited sample in age range and there was relatively little engagement with the 16-25 age group in this round. If you are a participation manager or young person’s manager and Ofsted is coming to call, they want to hear from you.

However, it is clear that more work needs to be done in the selection of case studies. Although Ofsted used its own criteria to select the families they spoke to, they could still only choose from families they were offered by local areas, which could be open to “cherry-picking". And what about the children who hadn’t been able or allowed to return to school? This is something that Ofsted will look at more closely for the next part of the research series. 

Inspectors also conducted online surveys for the local areas chosen. 92 young people and 1,427 parents and carers responded, but they were not evenly spread across the areas. Ofsted are to investigate how they can increase this reach for further surveys.

Lockdown positives and negatives

Inspectors found that some of those with EHCPs who remained in education settings during lockdown had positive experiences because of small classes and more support than they would usually have had (which is no surprise, really). Others, for whom school isn’t such a wonderful place, found their positive experience came from not being there.  Again, this backs up our and others’ surveys. Matt is currently working on analysing the responses to our autumn SEND survey. 

Collaboration and co-production wins

In areas where multi-agency working was good, families were better were supported. Collaboration between health, education and social care as well as with families is the cornerstone of the SEND reforms. The pandemic only serves to underline how important it is to get it right. 

Families in all six areas spoke about the benefits of bringing multi-agency practitioners together online. They also valued online resources when they were able to follow education or therapy programmes and support their children’s learning and development. However, some services, such as short breaks, physiotherapy and occupational therapy, were more difficult or impossible to deliver at distance..” 

COVID-19 series: briefing on local areas’ special educational needs and disabilities provision, October 2020 Ofsted/CQC

What was already anticipated, played out: The children and families who already had strong relationships with practitioners did better. They had good communication and were involved in making decisions about their provision. This meant provision was more likely to be appropriately adapted to their needs. Conversely, where there were poor of no existing relationships, families found they had little or no contact or learning support from practitioners. In some cases, children’s physical and mental health had deteriorated as a consequence or children had lost learning or communication skills. 

“Some families described support from individual practitioners in glowing terms, often naming particular people who had gone ‘above and beyond’ and speaking warmly about how this had benefited them. Conversely, weak relationships between families and practitioners deteriorated even further. The consequences of this could be serious. 

“In all six local areas, some families reported receiving little or even no contact from practitioners. Some children did not receive learning support and some were not able to access health and therapeutic services. In a small number of cases, families said that their children’s health had deteriorated as a consequence, or that their children had lost learning and communication skills. 

COVID-19 series: briefing on local areas’ special educational needs and disabilities provision, October 2020 Ofsted/CQC

Serious situations from a collapse in services

While social care assistance for disabled children continued in many areas it was often with a reduced care package, even though need increased because these children were not in school. In some areas, vulnerable and disabled children coming into care experienced unacceptable situations: 

“…In these cases, there was often significant delay and no evidence of escalation and problem-solving. One child remained living in residential provision while waiting for adaptions to the home. They had no face-to-face contact with family, which led to them experiencing avoidable emotional harm.”

“Many of the case-study families and survey respondents had experienced difficulties. In some cases, these difficulties were profound. Survey respondents in particular mentioned the emotional strain caused by restrictions, which they attributed to the loss of support both from family members, who they could no longer see face-to-face, and from education, health and care services. Some families felt unable to fill in the gaps left by the loss of these services, resulting in them, ‘feeling like a failure’ or ‘useless and overwhelmed’.”

Remote learning

The inspectors reported that most of the case-study families felt their children were generally well supported by their education providers with many having tailored learning activities. One special school with on-site occupational therapy (OT) provision sent exercises home to a child. Some providers sent laptops and tablets or paper copies of work to families who did not have access to necessary IT equipment. I don't think this should be seen as exceptional, however. Surely ensuring some access to education is a basic minimum - even though this is still more than many got.

As we already know, a significant factor was access to technology and lack of financial security. And of course, if a parent was out working, or otherwise preoccupied, they could not also support or supervise home learning and therapy.  

Where there has been good practice, it’s to be hoped that it can be collated and added to that which is being gathered by the Department for Education.

“Inspectors found children’s experiences weren’t necessarily determined by privilege or deprivation. Rather, those who are coping well have good support structures around them and have benefited from quality time spent with families and carers. 

“Across all age groups, children with SEND have been seriously affected in both their care and education, as the services that families relied on - particularly speech and language services - were unavailable.”

HM Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman

Getting back to school

Inspectors reported that in one area, leaders were not always aware whether children with SEND had returned to school or not. But some practitioners working closely with families can only be praised for their efforts.

“In one example, the therapists and social worker for a child with physical needs all visited the child’s school on the first day back in September to check their specialist equipment was available and correctly adjusted….Another parent talked about how their local authority case worker had emailed them outside of working hours to make sure their child’s education, health and care plan (EHCP) was updated quickly. “

Ofsted’s first report last month found a third of schools visited had seen an increase in children being educated at home. This report says half of schools said the same with school leaders claiming it’s because parents’ are worried about the virus, more than “a committed desire” to home educate.

With referrals to social care teams still below typical levels, Ofsted also continues to be worried about the children who were out of sight during the closure of schools. This raises concerns that domestic neglect, exploitation or abuse is going undetected.

However, as we know, not every disabled child has been able to go back to school since September. There are children with tracheostomies who are still not back in school and Ofsted highlighted others who haven’t been able to go back because of a lack of transportation, both of which are scandalous.

“A few leaders, both of special schools and AP settings, said that some pupils had been unable to return to school because their transport – taxis or minibuses – was not in place or there were other transport-related issues. For example, occasionally, a local authority was not providing the transport escorts to travel with the pupils, which meant that families were not prepared to let their children travel to school as they felt it was not safe.”

Perhaps instead of writing long rambly letters to parents very few will read, Vicky Ford, the SEND Minister, needs to concentrate on ensuring every child is welcomed back to school and is able to get there. Ms Ford seems very genuine, but this unacceptable issue has been continuing for three months now and she must tackle it immediately. 

Catching up

Some positive practice was reported to help some pupils, including those with SEND, to catch up. These included one-to-one or small-group tuition, using their own staff, sometimes before or after school. A small number extended their school day to give additional teaching time to all pupils. A few leaders said that these intervention sessions were being led by teachers, rather than teaching assistants as they would have been in the past. 

The pandemic seems to have given “leaders” bright ideas that should actually have been introduced along with the SEND reforms six years ago, such as “integrated case files or spreadsheet that all practitioners working with a family could access." 

Therapy access

With the first lockdown, vital therapies and respite were withdrawn overnight, leaving families without support and putting the health and progress of children with profound disabilities at risk. While there has been innovative practice from many, such as speech and language therapists taking their sessions online, many of these important therapies have still not resumed.

“Leaders of schools with pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties spoke about being unable to use hydrotherapy pools because of the physical support pupils need in order to do so. For some pupils, this is the only time they can move freely, so leaders felt that this was affecting some quite badly, both mentally and physically. However, very occasionally, leaders had made the opposite choice – they had prioritised swimming and hydrotherapy as they felt strongly that these were essential to some pupils to help them to regain their mobility.”

Back to school anxiety

A large number of families have been very concerned about their children going back to school in the middle of a pandemic. Indeed, latest guidance is that anyone (child or adult) still classed as clinically extremely vulnerable should not be in a school at present. 

But while generally healthy children may not suffer from the virus as badly as adults, they are not immune to debilitating anxiety about it. Even avoiding the wall-to-wall COVID media coverage, you can’t escape the fact we’re living in a radically different world. Most of us feel anxious to some degree. If you are someone who has an anxiety-related condition, this will be many times worse. Mental health is something that was frequently mentioned. 

“Many leaders spoke positively about pupils with SEND returning to school. In a couple of schools, leaders noted that additional time spent at home had been positive for pupils with SEND, who had returned with confidence. However, many were also concerned about their resilience and some noticed a need for more social and emotional support on returning to school.”

Staff issues

“Leaders described these pressures as unsustainable, overwhelming or unrealistic….”

“…leaders across education and social care expressed their concerns over budgets. Covering for staff absences and maintaining enhanced cleaning regimes are pushing up costs in schools and children’s homes. These concerns are compounded in Early Years and further education by worries over income streams.”

COVID-19 series: briefing on local areas’ special educational needs and disabilities provision, October 2020 Ofsted/CQC

Obviously, when it comes to delivering education and support, someone has to be there to do it. The pandemic has impacted everyone, no matter who you are. Both local areas and schools expressed concern over staff sickness in the coming months. Burnout is also a major concern after months of significant change and high workloads. Teachers have had to learn to teach in different ways, supporting both children in the classroom and at home. They have had to become experts in infection control and cover for staff who cannot be in. They may also have been ill themselves or supporting family members. 

This is something that must urgently be addressed by the government. They can’t just expect teachers and support staff to somehow clone themselves. These are people’s parents, partners and carers as well as teachers. They are not Duracell bunnies.  


In short, the pandemic amplified inequality and disadvantage for disabled children. I’m not sure we needed Ofsted and CQC to tell us this, but one can only hope its official status will mean this series of findings will serve to bring real remedies and improvements. Or is that too much to hope for? Will they just be shuffled to the bottom of the bad news pile awaiting the SEND Review?

I hope local and national government will look closely at these reports and ask each school what they need to improve teacher wellbeing and support for vulnerable children and those with SEND. It won’t be rocket science and it won’t require a long report. But this government must finally realise that far too many children don’t even have food security, let alone, a secure internet connection and a device suitable to learn on.

How well educated and mentally resilient our children are will determine the success of the country in years to come. Their future – that is all of our futures – must be safeguarded by concerted action now. No matter how much it costs in pounds sterling, it will still be cheaper spent now than remedially in a decade, if our children have not recovered what they are losing at this crucial stage in their development.

Ofsted’s programme of visits will continue remotely during the current lockdown, and further reports will be published in December.


This Friday, Matt and I will be interviewing Nick Whittaker, Ofsted's Lead SEND Specialist Inspector for an edition of SNJ In Conversation. If you have a succinct question, please send it in

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Tania Tirraoro

One comment

  1. anne B

    I’m putting my question here as my email set up won’t let me use the link.

    Ofsted commented about the impact on staff. Given that they have acknowledged that those with SEND lost structure and support overnight and that provision is patchy, are they planning to do any work on the impact on the parents and carers, given that a child who has to go into care because parents can no longer cope will cost the state a great deal more than providing support would have done.

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