Six months ago, Ofsted & the Care Quality Commission began inspecting how well local areas are implementing the September 2014 SEND reforms. At the time of writing, they’ve published 13 ‘outcome letters’ showing what they discovered during their inspections.
Each of these letters outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the local area’s SEND setup. But so far, only two local areas – Rochdale & Surrey – have concerned inspectors enough for them to activate their most serious sanction – instructing the local area to write a statement of intent.
Two weeks ago, Ofsted published their annual state-of-the-nation report. On pages 87-88, you’ll find mention of these local area SEND inspections. And they had the following to say about the first eight local areas they looked at:
“In these first inspections, each local area was meeting its statutory obligations.”
That’s a bold, clear claim. It’s also demonstrably untrue.
The truth in statistics:
- According to the Department for Education, these eight local areas failed to process over one in three fresh EHCPs within the statutory timescale in 2015 - affecting 840 children & young people.
- This year, these eight local areas failed to complete more than 150 primary-to-secondary phase transfers by the statutory deadline, according to data obtained via Freedom of Information.
- According to the Ministry of Justice, parents from these eight local areas have submitted over 448 appeals to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal since the reforms kicked in. SENDIST appeals that reach a legal panel succeed 87% of the time.
- The Local Government Ombudsman has upheld at least 10 SEND-related complaints against these eight local areas since the reforms kicked in.
Over 1,000 separate statutory breaches, in just eight local areas, based on a 10-minute scrub of publicly-available data. And yet, Ofsted’s annual report says all these local areas are meeting their statutory obligations.
From a parental perspective, something is not right here.
What’s going on?
I think that Ofsted & CQC leaders are committed to the principle of inspecting well, without fear or favour. There are good people running these inspections, people who know what it takes to do SEND provision well.
All the same, there are flaws; some of them big ones.
One of the biggest is the way the inspection teams depend on seconded ‘expert’ senior managers from local authority SEN services and I’ll cover that in another SNJ article soon.
Another issue though is how parents and carers are fitting into these inspections: how inspectors get our evidence, how good our evidence is, and sometimes, how our evidence seems to be weighed up. Things look like they are improving on this score – but there are things we can do to help.
Parental Evidence – How it’s collected
Local areas get a week’s notice that Ofsted / CQC inspectors are coming. The inspection team relies heavily (but not totally) on local authorities and established parent-carer forums (PCFs) to spread word that they are in town. Once they arrive, inspectors collect ‘parent views’ via three main ways: meetings with the PCF, talking to parents at the placements they visit, and an online webinar.
There is no easy way for Ofsted & CQC to skin this cat. Parents are spread widely and thinly; they aren’t always well connected to PCFs or social media groups, they can’t always meet inspectors during school visits, and they can’t always attend webinars.
Nonetheless, the experience of the last six months indicates that the current arrangements are frail. The notification process relies heavily on the good faith and effectiveness of local authorities and PCFs. If you can’t rely on either, then it’s a major challenge for many parents to find out these inspections are even happening, much less get involved.
Parental participation in online webinars so far has been highly variable. Less than 10 parents have taken part in some webinars; in others, around 130 joined in. And the webinar itself is a flawed way to collect evidence from parents - 4 yes/no questions, with an unstructured comment box. The questions are broad-brush, superficial, and sometimes unfit for purpose – here’s one:
“Since September 2014, have your child’s needs been effectively met?”
In my case, the answer’s yes, but that doesn’t tell you much. I had to invoke the law repeatedly to get my LA to meet my kids’ needs effectively. Only a fool would interpret “yes” as evidence of a local area working well.
Parental Evidence: How it’s treated
The Ofsted / CQC local area inspection handbook requires inspectors to seek parental “views” as a “crucial” and “central feature of inspection activity.” That sounds laudable. I’m not sure it is.
The choice of the word “views” here is important. “Views” are information that might be based on perception, opinion, and emotion. “Views” might be tied to reality, or they might not.
There are two frustrating things about this. Firstly, parents are perfectly capable of supplying hard evidence. The SEND process throws it up, in spades. I can map where, when and how the local authorities I’ve lived in succeeded and failed to meet their legal obligations to my kids. “Views” did not get my kids’ special educational needs met. Explicit evidence did.
The second big problem with treating parental evidence as “views” is that it can allow bias – conscious or unconscious – to seep into the evaluation of parents’ testimony.
Here, it’s worth looking at the language inspectors used to depict parental input in the first eight letters. When parental input was positive about the local area, the verbs inspectors used were almost always dispassionate and neutral. Here are a few examples (I’ve highlighted the verbs for emphasis):
- “Most parents told inspectors that their regular meetings with professionals, such as annual reviews, are useful” [Nottinghamshire]
- “Parents report that their views are taken seriously and that they contribute fully” [Brighton & Hove]
- “Parents recognise the positive difference that [a multi-disciplinary approach] is making” [Enfield]
- “Many parents, children and young people confirmed that they have a voice in planning provision to meet their needs” [Gloucestershire]
On the other hand, when parents criticised local areas, their evidence was usually written up with more emotive language:
- “Some parents felt that their views are not sufficiently taken into account when the local area makes decisions regarding school placements” [Gloucestershire]
- “Some parents do not feel their views are reflected in the plans when they request amendments to planned provision, involving education, health and care” [Gloucestershire]
- “Parents are very frustrated about the quality of information and guidance” [Hertfordshire]
- “Some parents feel that their children have to wait until they are of school age before they are supported with an assessment of needs.” [North Yorkshire]
- “Many parents described challenging circumstances in which they believed professionals in the education, health and care sectors did not always take their views into account” [Nottinghamshire]
- “A number of parents were worried that some secondary schools were not meeting the needs of pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities in an inclusive manner. They felt unwelcome at open evenings or transition events” [Enfield]
For most of these cases, parents will have been capable of supplying hard evidence to back up their views. Were they given the opportunity?
If parents and carers had a clear opportunity to provide detailed evidence and didn’t take it, then fine.
But if parents didn’t have a proper opportunity to present hard evidence or to have it taken seriously by inspectors, then that is light years away from fine.
Many of the situations here that parents are described as ‘feeling’ are breaches of the SEND Regulations and/or the SEND Code of Practice. Did inspectors even realise this?
This might just be occasional, unconscious bias. Some of the most recent inspection outcome letters have been much more neutral in the language that’s used to characterise parental evidence.
But it is a form of bias that many, many parents of SEND children have experienced when trying to work with local areas. Credible, reliable evidence, expertise by experience, dismissed as “Mum feels that” or “Dad is worried that.”
Nancy Gedge – a parent of a child with Downs Syndrome, a teacher, and an all-round top person (and also SNJ columnist) sums up this subtle, insidious professional ‘othering’ in this post on her own blog.
One of the guiding principles of the new SEND legislation is partnership – parents working as equals with professionals, as experts in their child through experience, as full members of the team. Partners, not spectators. This can, and surely must, apply to the process of inspection too.
So what can we do?
The default mechanisms for capturing parental evidence don’t work well. And right now, you cannot automatically assume that inspectors will recognise statutory breaches.
So that means parents need to go beyond bringing “views” to the inspections. We need to bring evidence to the table. And we need to bring evidence that is tethered to our kids’ progress and wellbeing and to the local area’s legal obligations.
If you are a member of a well-organised, well-prepared, fearless and representative PCF, then get involved. Hertfordshire Parent Carer Involvement’s approach to their local area inspection is a great example of what can be done. Herts PCI put in some serious groundwork before the inspection, collected detailed survey responses from over 600 parents, and handed it over to inspectors when they arrived.
You might not have a PCF like this. If you don’t, then don’t give up; send evidence to inspectors singly, or get organised via Facebook groups. But think hard about the way you present and structure your evidence:
Tips to structure your evidence for Ofsted/CQC SEND Inspections
- If your child is making good progress because of the local area’s actions, don’t just say so: explain in writing what they are doing well, and explain what positive impact it’s having on meeting your child’s needs.
- If your child is not making good progress because of the local area’s actions, again, don’t just say so: explain in writing what they are not doing (or what they are doing badly), and detail the impact it’s having on your child.
- If your local area is acting unlawfully, then detail which parts of the SEND legal framework your local area is breaching, and how they are breaching it. Again, detail the impact that unlawful action is having on your child or young person.
- Inspectors don’t have a lot of time to get the job done. Make life easier for them by keeping the evidence you send short, snappy & to the point. Sending inspectors a 600-page SENDIST bundle won’t work, nor will a lengthy email chain where the smoking gun is buried 3 pages into a nested paragraph.
- If you send evidence that criticises a local area, make it clear to inspectors that what you are sending them is for the purposes of inspection evidence. Inspectors can’t resolve individual complaints, and they are not going to sort out your individual case on the spot.
- You don’t have to wait until the inspection to send Ofsted & CQC your evidence. You can ask inspectors to place evidence on file, using the following email addresses: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
None of this guarantees that inspectors will act on the evidence you provide – but it increases the chances that they might. And if nothing else, Ofsted won’t be able to claim in next year’s annual report that failing or delinquent local areas are meeting their legal obligations.