Ofsted’s grim verdict on SEND in England

Ofsted's grim verdict on SEND in England

Ofsted's annual report, late because of the election, has a great deal to say about SEND and not much of it is good.

To recap figures we’ve previously reported (links at the end): In January 2019, there were over 1.3 million school-age pupils with SEND, which is 15% of all pupils in schools - or at least that’s the number who have some sort of SEND provision. 

Just over one million pupils are on the lower level of SEN Support, while 270,000 pupils had an EHCP.  In total, there are 354,000 children and young people with EHCPs. The rest are aged under five or 16-25, so outside the statutory school age. Since 2015, there has been a 47% increase in EHCPs issued. 

Around 45% of pupils with an EHCP attend state-funded and non-maintained special schools. There are falling numbers of mainstream schools that have specialist units and specialist resource provision. 1,261 SEN units in 2019, down from 1,423 in 2015 and 1,685 schools with specialist resource provision last year, compared with 2,021 in 2015. If the government is so committed to having children within county provision, why is it allowing this to fall away?

resource provision for SEN in schools
Image: © Special Needs Jungle

Problems accessing the right education and support 

“Demand for EHC plans continues to grow year on year. There were 72,400 initial requests for an assessment during 2018. This is an increase from 64,600 (12%) in 2017.  LAs assessed 51,600 children and young people for an EHC plan in 2018, some 6,400 more than in 2017, but the proportion of assessments compared with initial requests was very similar (around seven in 10). LAs can also refuse to carry out an EHC needs assessment after considering a wide range of evidence.  In 2018, 17,900 (25%) initial requests for assessment were refused compared with 14,600 (23%) in 2017. “

Ofsted Annual report

This is quite a revealing paragraph. When it talks about getting the right SEND support Ofsted notes “Demand for EHC plans continues to grow year on year”.  When even Ofsted is using words like ‘demand’ as if it’s some kind of fashion item or fancy consumer good, instead of the last resort of a desperate parent, you have to question the where the narrative is coming from. 

Parents don’t just wake up one morning and think, “I know, I shall DEMAND an EHC needs assessment for my child today whether they need one or not because I could really use the extra stress, expense, and hits to my self-esteem that will bring.”

In fact, we know from speaking to many, many parents, that 72,400 is an underestimate of the number who should actually have applied. We know many parents are still not asking for assessments because they’re told either criteria have changed and their child won’t stand a chance of getting a plan (note, the criteria have not changed). Or perhaps they don’t even realise they can ask themselves. Or, perhaps, the school just thinks the child is ‘naughty’ and preferably needs to be shunted off somewhere else. It depends entirely on the school. 

“Ninety-nine per cent of children and young people with EHC plans are placed in the type of education setting named in their plan. While this clearly reflects an enormous effort on the part of LAs and schools, it still left almost 3,500 children and young people with EHC plans waiting for the provision due to them at January 2019. This means that following statutory assessment, the child or young person was not in the school or education setting named in their EHC plan, despite being agreed through statutory consultation. Rather concerningly, over 2,700 of these 3,500 children and young people were recorded as not being in school or in an education setting at the time of the annual data return.”

Ofsted Annual report

This is a little misleading: the fact that 99% of pupils are in the school named in their plan doesn't tell the whole story. It's quite likely that the parents just accepted the mainstream placement they were given, hopeful an EHCP will make the difference. Other times parents have had to fight, often at the SEND Tribunal, to get the school they believe is best for their child.

Excluded from an education

The numbers of those children who are not in the setting named in their plan or, indeed in any setting, needs to be investigated further. It may be that the LA refused to name the parents' preferred school and they're appealing. It may mean the child has been excluded or off-rolled. Or it may mean that the school named wasn’t suitable, although the child attended and couldn’t cope with the environment. An EHCP is no guarantee that the named school is the right one for the child, especially if it’s the same school the child was already not coping in before they had an EHCP.

As the report states: 

“Pupils with SEND in mainstream schools can also struggle to access good-quality education. Compared with pupils without SEND, they are over five times more likely to have a fixed-term exclusion and five times more likely to be permanently excluded from state-funded primary and secondary schools. 

“Figures for state-funded primary, state-funded secondary and special schools show that pupils with SEND account for over 178,000 (43%) of fixed-term and nearly 3,600 (45%) of permanent exclusions in 2017/18. The primary need for just over half of pupils with SEND at the time of exclusion was recorded as social, emotional and mental health, despite this being only the third most prevalent primary need.”

And where are these children going to get mental health support? Well, unless they’re suicidal (and sometimes, even if they are suicidal), they're likely going nowhere fast, unless the parents can pay for private therapy, to avoid lengthy CAMHS waiting times and impossible access criteria. 

So while most are in mainstream, it’s clear from the report why many parents prefer their children to be in one of the 1,040 state-funded and non-maintained special schools, or the 520 independent special schools. 

Of the independent special schools visited by Ofsted up to August 2019, 83% were judged good or outstanding at their most recent inspection. Meanwhile, 92% of state-funded special schools are judged good or outstanding. When you consider the challenges disabled children and young people already face, why wouldn’t you want them to have the kind of provision that can mitigate these difficulties as much as possible? While it would be nice for every mainstream school to offer the same education to all pupils, right now they don’t and it’s hard to envisage a situation where enough money will be pumped into making it happen, not in training, facilities or provision.

Driving accountability? Local Area SEND inspections 

We have written extensively about SEND Area Inspections on SNJ and whether or not they are increasing accountability. The Ofsted Annual report had quite a bit to say about them too. In 2020, the Ofsted Stakeholder Advisory Group I’m part of is looking to develop more of a key role and hear more voices, including that of young people, which is a very positive move and very much overdue. 

The first five-year cycle of local area SEND inspections should end this May, but they will be continuing as an ongoing thing. So far, the majority of those areas inspected have received “Written Statements of Action” i.e, they failed. They then have to tell Ofsted, CQC and the Department for Education how they intend to pull up their socks in a short space of time. In the 2018/19 school year, 33 areas were inspections and 21 required a WSoA. 

I’m sure local authorities take a great interest in what the findings of other areas are, but I’ve been told that some LAs wait to be inspected before they make any changes, to find what needs to improve. Or, if you like, ‘let’s see what they spot and what we can get away with’. 

However, inspectors are gaining experience with every visit and areas that have yet to be inspected are much less likely to get away with anything at all, especially if parents make good use of the opportunity to feedback. What will be interesting is when the second wave starts, how many of those LAs who passed on the first go and avoided having to go through a period of internal reflection, will manage the same on their second round. I would advise they do not rest easy, but carefully look at changes others have had to make and see if their own provision needs a similar overhaul before Ofsted inspectors come calling again.

NOTE: SNJ announce every upcoming SEND area inspection on our social media so please follow us on Facebook or Twitter and keep an eye out. You should also sign up to news from your local PCF as they will have the information before us and should be getting the message out to parents, including dates of open meetings. If your area has an inspection coming up, you need to chase your PCF for the open meeting details if they are not readily apparent, to ensure LAs can’t get away with ‘cherry-picking’ who they want to speak to inspectors. 

What local areas are good at

The local areas that Ofsted finds are working well have the following general characteristics:

  • Leaders understand how effective their SEND provision is. “They know where the weaknesses are and take effective action to rectify them.”
  • Co-production is operating well. “Area leaders jointly plan, commission and provide services that are responsive to the needs of children and young people with SEND and their families.
  • Education, health and care professionals are working well with families and across services, identifying and meeting needs in “a timely and effective way”. 

Where they fail

Where it’s not working well, these areas also have a lot in common:

  • Leaders don’t understand the needs and lived experience of children, young people with SEND and their families very well. 
  • Commissioning across services is weak and ineffective. 
  • EHC assessment and planning arrangements are not good enough with overdue plans whose quality is “too variable” 
  • The role of the designated clinical or medical officer (who acts as a liaison between the LA and NHS) is “…insufficiently resourced. This limits their ability to provide effective oversight of EHC assessment and planning.” Too many plans have poor provision for health even though there is good-quality medical and therapeutic advice available.
  • Frequent concerns from inspectors about 
    • transitions into adult health services, 
    • clinical diagnostic assessment for autistic spectrum disorder 
    • access to mental health services 
  • The local offer websites are inaccessible or difficult to navigate. 
  • Communication between education, health and care professionals, and between professionals and families, is poor. 
  • Families do not know where to get the help and support that their children need. 
  • Parents and carers have a mixed experience of co-production. Too many say that their views and experiences are neither heard nor valued. 

That’s a lot of bad stuff. Especially when compared to the good stuff. Clearly, there is much work to be done. 

Written statements of action and revisits 

“When WSoA is required, the DfE works with the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England to provide appropriate challenge and support to area leaders to bring about the necessary improvements.”

Ofsted Annual report

The report says 39 local areas are awaiting a revisit. Of the 11 revisits that have already taken place, five: Hartlepool, Suffolk, Surrey, Dorset, and Sefton were still not up to scratch in the areas that had caused them to fail their original inspection. An LA revisit has to be satisfactory in all the areas where it originally failed to come off the naughty step.  Fail in one, fail the whole thing. For these five areas, and any that follow, the DfE and NHS England determine the next steps, which may include the Secretary of State intervening. There is no further revisit by Ofsted/CQC unless specifically asked by the Government. We’re going to be following this closely in 2020.

The revisit only examines the failed areas of concern. So, in the meantime, those parts of an area’s service that may have scraped through, could have slipped into awfulness. This is also true of some of those local areas that managed to pass their SEND inspection. 

How parents can make an impact

SEND area inspections are one area where parents can have a direct impact on driving change, by participating in feedback webinars and open meetings and sending in your views during the inspection period). If so moved, you should also use the Parent View system at any time to put forward your thoughts. Enough evidence could prompt an earlier inspection than would otherwise have happened. You should also do this when you become aware of off-rolling as Ofsted do use information received to “prioritise which schools to inspect


Off-rolling is still a huge concern for Ofsted. Just over 5,500 pupils with SEND left their school between Years 10 and 11 and Ofsted admits that some of them may have been off-rolled. The report says while only 15% of all pupils have SEND, 27% of those missing from school are pupils with SEND – a national average that means 10% in one part of the country 58% in another.  

However, I would very much like to know what Ofsted means when it talks of “considerable grey areas” when it investigates data that shows exceptional pupil movement indicating off-rolling. Although Ofsted says it has only directly mentioned off-rolling in five published inspection reports, the excuses schools have given inspectors would be very interesting to hear, especially if some of those pupils ended up being home-schooled. 

This is especially pertinent when Ofsted’s own teacher survey showed a perceived increase in off-rolling. Teachers told the inspectorate that in their experience:

  • vulnerable students, with SEND or other needs, are more likely to be affected
  • although schools may say that pupils are off-rolled due to behaviour, teachers believe that academic achievement is more important in the decision-making
  • both senior leadership teams and classroom teachers believe that the pressure of maintaining high-performance table positions and good Ofsted ratings can trigger off-rolling
  • parents are pressured to accept off-rolling through elective home education and many teachers think that parents need more support, especially those with the least understanding of their children’s rights and/or who speak English as an additional language

And what happens to these pupils? Ofsted admits many “…fall out of sight of any authority. The luckier ones may be placed in a good PRU or into effective alternative provision... However, when faced with a lack of high-quality supply, professionals sometimes place children in unregistered or unregulated education…”

While Ofsted is far from perfect, they can only respond to what they know about. While it shouldn’t be our job to police SEND provision, it’s no good just complaining about what is not working among ourselves or on your favourite Facebook group or on Twitter. Parents have become increasingly active at complaining to the Ombudsman, but in some instances, the LGSCO has no power to act or is the wrong place to complain– you need to also pass on your views and experiences to Ofsted, where appropriate, as well. 

FE provision is yet another weak spot

Of Further Education and Skills providers, it seems that high-quality provision for learners with high needs is also in short supply. According to inspection statistics, the best that most can expect is to be in “good” provision, with many more in provision that is either requiring improvement or inadequate than in outstanding settings. So if you manage to get through school, you still have many opportunities to be let down in post-16 provision…

Good SEND leadership is vital

As Hannah wrote yesterday, there is strong evidence that shows how SEND provision in schools can be improved – it just needs the will, money and most of all, the leadership to do it. 

This Ofsted report echoes this not just for teachers but across education, health and social care. 

“Staff believe that lack of resources – both human and physical – affects their ability to do their job as well as they could. Human resource shortages increase the already high workload, decrease staff’s ability to do their core job effectively and mean that they are often asked to take on additional responsibilities outside their expertise. Staff also feel hampered by a lack of physical resources such as computers or library materials. This all contributes to a sense of disempowerment, despite having the skills and knowledge needed to deliver good-quality education.

“Pupils’ behaviour often has a negative effect on teachers’ well-being and teachers do not always feel supported by senior leaders or line managers in addressing poor behaviour. This is often because behaviour management is inconsistent.”

It cannot be stressed too much that effective leadership for SEND is key. Leaders across all services for disabled children need to understand SEND, understand and respect relevant law and listen to what they are being told by staff, children and parents. There is no room for ivory towers when children’s futures are at stake.

Also read:

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Tania Tirraoro

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