SEND 2020: What’s the current state of Ofsted local area inspections?

Four years ago, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission started inspecting local SEND services. Thanks to COVID-19, inspections are on hold – so now’s a good a time as any to take a look at what’s emerged from these inspections, where they lead, and what might be happening next. You can also find a 2021 update at the end of this article.

Local Area SEND Inspections, a brief explanation

It won’t surprise you to learn that accountability was an afterthought when the SEND system was re-designed. The local area SEND inspections were grafted onto the new system at a late stage: they only began in spring 2016, a full 18 months after the reforms became law. 

The local area SEND inspections were originally put together as a one-shot event. Each of England’s 151 ‘local areas’ (that’s the local authority, plus whatever NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups operate within the local authority) gets inspected once over a five year period by a joint team from Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC), who visit the local area over the course of a working week. 

There’s no grading, like there is with Ofsted’s school or social care inspections. Inspectors look at how well the local area is implementing the 2014 SEND reforms: how well they identify children & young people’s SEND, how effectively the local area meets these needs, and how good the local area is at improving outcomes. Inspectors assess the local area’s strengths and weaknesses, and they then produce a written report (an ‘outcome letter’) on their findings. 

If Ofsted & CQC inspectors decide that weaknesses are particularly significant, then they order the local area to put together a ‘written statement of action’ (WSOA) – a formal document, laying out how and when the local area has to sort out the areas of serious weakness. 

Inspection Outcomes

So how have local areas performed to date, according to these inspections? Check the infographic for a snapshot, and take a look at our interactive graphic to see each local area has fared. Scroll to the end for our infographic to give you a snapshot visual look.

  • 117 of England’s 151 local areas have been inspected so far. Of these 117 local areas, over half of them (60) have been told to put together a written statement of action to sort out significant weaknesses in their SEND services.
  • Inspection outcomes have got worse over time: in 2016, 25% of inspected local areas were told to submit a WSOA. In 2018 and 2019, 60% of inspected local areas were told to submit one. 
  • There are some big variations in outcome between regions: in the North-East, eight of the nine local areas inspected so far have been told to submit a WSOA. In the East of England, it’s three out of every four. But in London, the rate is far lower, currently one in four local areas. 
Map of area inspections (see earlier link for interactive version

What sort of weaknesses are inspectors finding? 

We took a look at the 60 local areas where inspectors ordered a written statement of action. Across these 60 local areas, inspectors have identified a total of 329 areas of significant weakness. Most local areas in this situation tend to clock up somewhere between 3 and 6 significant weaknesses, but some have many more – currently, Dudley (14 areas of significant weakness) and Birmingham (13) are squatting atop this grim pile.

The most common significant weaknesses that inspectors are finding are in leadership, strategy, and accountability, followed by problems with EHCP process and quality. Significant weaknesses in joint working between education, health, and/or social carecome in a close third, with defective co-production and relationships with parents also very common problems.

Inspectors have also identified significant weaknesses in specific service areas: problems with ASD pathways are the most common issues here. Other weaknesses that have sometimes triggered a WSOA include: local area ‘self-evaluation’ (where the LA can’t show it knows its own strengths and weaknesses, and how to find them); high exclusions and poor cultures of inclusionacross schools in the local area; and poor outcomes for children and young people with SEND.

Culture priority and leadership are major issues

There are a few things that stand out:

These weaknesses are overwhelmingly problems of organisational culture, priority, and leadership – not shortages of funding. The SEND sector desperately needs more funding – but these inspections show, very clearly, that more money alone will not be enough remedy the sector’s deep, deep problems.

The definition of a “significant weakness” depends almost entirely on inspector judgement – This is something that’s baked into the local area SEND inspection framework. Inspectors are expected to use their judgement to work out where the dividing line is between a weakness that can be sorted in-house by the local area, and a significant weakness that needs a written statement of action and outside direction to ensure it’s dealt with . 

Failing, yet not failing

The track record of these inspections shows that as a local area, it’s entirely possible to fail to meet your statutory SEND obligations – sometimes year after year, sometimes failing on a scale visible from other planets – without being deemed to have “significant weaknesses”.

Inspectors are human. Like all of us, their judgements are influenced by personal experience, knowledge, and context. Ofsted and CQC have training and quality control processes in place to correct for this. Nonetheless, within some of these inspections, it’s sometimes hard to tell why a particular area of weakness is deemed significant in one area, and yet not in another local area. 

  • Take Somerset – they managed to complete one in five new EHCPs within the statutory deadline in 2019  – performance described as “woefully slow” by inspectors a few weeks ago, who called it out as one of several areas of significant weakness in the local area, earning them a written statement of action.
  • Then take Hampshire, inspected the week before Somerset. In 2019, a full five years after the SEND reforms began, Hampshire completed just 6% of its EHCPs within the statutory 20-week deadline in 2019. Despite EHCP performance three times worse than Somerset’s “woefully slow” efforts, Hampshire has not had to submit a written statement of action.

Who's in the inspection team?

Sometimes, things seem to depend on the composition and leadership of the inspection team. Local area SEND inspection teams are led by an Ofsted HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspector). Usually, these lead HMIs have a background in school leadership or local authority school improvement. Increasingly though, local area SEND inspections are being led by HMIs who recently led local authority SEND services – and over the last year, there are definite differences in outcome.

  • 19 of the local area SEND inspections completed since May 2019 have been led by HMIs who have no prior background in LA SEND leadership. Their inspection teams ordered 12 of these 19 local areas to submit written statements of action.
  • The other six inspections completed since May 2019 were led by HMIs with recent experience of leading local authority SEND services. Not a single one of these local areas was asked to complete a written statement of action – even though they had multiple areas of weakness which were classed as significant in other local areas.  

Ofsted & CQC argue that they are inspectors, not regulators. They’re there to assess whether the reforms are being implemented well and are making a difference to children and young people with SEND - not to determine whether the law is being strictly applied. The local area SEND inspection framework does say that “illegal practice” is likely to trigger a WSOA – but…

Inspectors almost never identify and call out illegal or unlawful practice – Of the 326 individual areas of significant weakness identified by inspectors since 2016, only one was classified as ‘possible illegal practice’ – in Oldham, where some applications for EHC needs assessment used to be refused within 24 hours, and whose (now-junked) transport policies would almost certainly have been eviscerated by judicial review. 

What happens after an inspection?

If the local area doesn’t have to submit a written statement of action, then its ride on the inspection carousel stops here. There are several local areas where inspectors have commented particularly positively on SEND service performance: for example, Bath & North East SomersetLincolnshireMilton Keynes, and West Berkshire – and these reports are worth a read. 

On the other hand, there are also some horror-show services that haven’t had to write a statement of action. Many of these were amongst the first to be inspected, when inspectors were still finding their feet.

But if the local area is ordered to submit a WSOA, this is roughly how it works…

  • In their outcome letter to the local area, the inspectors will have identified one or more areas of significant weakness. For each of these areas, the local area writes a draft plan, usually outlining what needs to improve, how things will improve, when things will change, who’s responsible for ensuring that change happens, and how the local area will know that things are actually improving.
  • Once Ofsted & CQC have reviewed the draft WSOA and told the local area that it’s fit for purpose, the local area then gets at least 18 months to implement it. During this time, the local area gets support from a roving band of consultants from the Department for Education and NHS England, who are supposed to keep them on track. 
  • But after at least 18 months (and sometimes closer to 2 years), an inspector returns for a formal ‘re-visit’ of the local area.

Re-Visits: reinspecting areas of prior failure

The ‘re-visit’ isn’t a full re-inspection – inspectors come to the local area for a couple of days, focus on the local area’s significant weaknesses, and check to see how well they’re sorting them out. Once they’ve done the re-visit, inspectors then write another letter, assessing whether the local area is doing enough to address the areas of weakness – and if not, where they still need to improve.

The first of these re-visits took place in late 2018. To date, there have been 22 of them. If you want to see how each of them have fared, check the interactive map at this link.

  • We’re still waiting to hear back on one - but so far, inspectors have given a thumbs-up to 9 out of 21 re-visited local areas. 
  • In these 9, inspectors have said they’re satisfied that the local area has either remedied the areas of weakness in full, or that the local area is firmly on the right path to sorting them out. 
Map of area inspections (see earlier link for interactive version

Bear in mind that it’s still entirely possible to get a clean bill of health from a re-visit without running a squeaky-clean service. For example, Sutton got through its re-visit earlier this year despite being caught copying and pasting content across EHCPs, despite ongoing, chronic problems with its EHCP annual reviews, and despite evidence from local parents that some of Sutton’s EHC needs assessment practices were less than lawful.

What happens to the second-time failure LAs?

So if only 9 out of 21 local areas got a clean bill of health on their re-visit, what about the rest? 

With the other 12, inspectors determined that the local area hadn’t yet done enough to sort out all of its significant SEND weaknesses. In most cases, inspectors assessed that the local area had sorted out many of their areas of weakness, but not all of them. So far, the most common unresolved issues have been joint working and EHCP quality.

Here’s where things get murky. Once the re-visit’s done, and once Ofsted and CQC issue their re-visit report, then they bow out. Under the current framework, their work is done. The fizzing stink-bomb of accountability then gets handed over to the Department for Education (DfE) and to NHS England, who then decide what happens next. 

And in the vast majority of cases, it’s unclear what does actually happen next.

If a local area flunks its SEND inspection re-visit, the DfE have wide-ranging powers that they can exercise – if they want to. They can issue the local area with a formal notice to improve its SEND services. They can issue a statutory direction, effectively removing the local area’s control of the service. They can bring inspectors back in if they want. They can run their own improvement programme. Or they can do nothing.

And in the vast majority of cases, we simply don’t know what they are doing. 

The DfE has issued one local area with a formal notice to improve – Sefton, who were put on notice last summer, and have been given until October to put their house in order. 

As for all the other local areas who flunked their SEND re-visits, there is virtually no reliable information in the public domain on what’s happened since. Parents and front-line professionals are largely shut out of the process, for reasons that Whitehall has yet to adequately explain. As far as we can tell, there are more meetings, more action plans, more brightly-coloured RAG charts – but no clarity on how these will succeed where six years of near-identical bureaucratic kabuki has previously failed.

The future of the inspection process post 2020

For now, the local area SEND inspections and re-visits are paused. There’s no practical way to carry them out, there’s no practical way to drive improvements through whilst the virus is still on the rampage – and it’s hard to see how inspectors can properly assess how well local areas are implementing the SEND reforms when the substance of those reforms has been gutted through the SEND easements.

Something else that’s also shrouded in mystery is the long-term future of the SEND inspections. Remember, these were initially envisaged as a one-shot deal – but the extent of service failure has made that untenable. 

In July 2018, Damian Hinds (the-then Secretary of State for Education) instructed Ofsted and CQC to start designing a new programme of SEND inspections to follow the current round. That was nearly two years ago. As far as we can tell, it’s still a work in progress – and as of February at least, there was no funding stream in place to make them happen

We’re not talking big bucks here, by the standards of either inspection or SEND – approximately £1m per year on the education side, according to Ofsted’s accountsFrom the outside, it looks like a problem of political will, strategic focus, and a failure of joint working. The sort of problems, ironically, that the local area SEND inspections themselves reveal on a week-by-week basis.

Time to use the evidence to make the system better

These inspections are far from perfect. The process is slow. Judgements are sometimes inconsistent. Sometimes, inspectors are bafflingly relaxed about breaches of statutory duty. A number of inspectors can’t help deprecating parental evidence: in too many reports, the local area “assesses”, professionals “report”, but parents “feel” – regardless of the objective quality of the evidence provided by parents.

There’s a tendency to treat SENDIST decisions and LGO complaints as indicators of parental dissatisfaction, rather than as forensic evidence of the quality of local area decision-making. And ultimately, in cases of serial local area failure, the accountability journey stops with Whitehall, who aren’t revealing much.  

But despite all this, the local area SEND inspections are the best tool for improvement that this system offers. That’s not exactly a crowded field – but many of these inspections are unearthing hard truth about how SEND services work at local area level. The inspection system is now overseen by specialists who genuinely "get it". People in positions of power and influence are making important decisions off the back of what these inspections reveal or fail to reveal. It’s a process worth supporting, and worth keeping in place.

Note: SNJ's Tania sits on the Ofsted SEND Stakeholder Advisory Group, inputting views as a SEND parent

Infographic: Tania Tirraoro. Copyright Special Needs Jungle Ltd. Click to enlarge. Free to download, share & print for non-commercial use only

Download this infographic as a PDF

2021 update

Inspections Map - Colour Blind version. Interactive version here

Also read:

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Matt Keer

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