SEND Inspections on repeat, with families’ experience “essential” to new framework

We’ve been waiting a while for confirmation about what’s happening when the current cycle of Ofsted/CQC SEND inspections of all 152 English LAs ends. Will that be it? Will there be more? I even wrote a post wondering what the delay was (pre-pandemic)

So, it’s very good news that that the starting pistol has now officially been fired in an announcement yesterday, in one of a number of communiqués from Ofsted. This is very positive news and will be welcomed by parents of disabled children and by young people with SEND. It’s even more positive that it’s not just one more cycle in inspections, but a repeating one.

As part of the SEND inspections stakeholders advisory group, I’ve been involved in a couple of online meetings during lockdown about where the inspections are headed (I’ve recently been joined by our SNJ colleague, Matt Keer, from what looks like his attic. I am always on my sofa, feet up, laptop on a cushion, just to paint a picture). 

It is the intention of Nick Whittaker, Ofsted’s SEND lead inspector (and that of Lea Pickerill, his CQC counterpart) that parents and young people’s views are central to developing the new framework. Because, as they say, who are they inspecting for? (The answer is families btw).

Nick and his team have been champing at the bit to get started on designing this new, improved, framework for the local area inspections. But without the final go-ahead from the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), they’ve been held in the starting gate. It’s baffling it's taken this long to get the green light. The DfE first said it would ask Ofsted & CQC to start work on designing new SEND inspections two whole years ago. Since 2018, evidence of SEND system failure has built up like a fatberg in a city sewer. Why the delay?

I asked Nick to give us a take-away quote for how he sees the future of the new framework. He said:

‘We will be taking time to listen and learn from the experience of children and young people with SEND and their parents and carers. This is going to be an essential part of developing the new area SEND framework. We want to make sure we focus on the things that make the biggest difference’

Nick Whittaker, Ofsted lead inspector for SEND, to SNJ
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Resumption of inspections

One of the new announcements entailed how they are moving towards resuming SEND inspections post-pandemic (or perhaps while it still bubbles under and occasionally boils over, as in Leicester). 

Ofsted/CQC’s plan from the autumn term is to visit, but not inspect or judge, a number of local areas to help improve their SEND systems following the COVID-19 disruption.

“Ofsted and CQC will work collaboratively with local areas to understand the experiences of children and young people with SEND and their families during the pandemic, and to support local areas to prioritise and meet their needs…They will give insights into how the SEND system is working from the autumn term, while the area SEND inspection cycle remains on hold…We will share learning from these visits, alongside good practice and case studies, in national reports. This will help to strengthen the whole SEND system in a positive way.”

Supporting local areas to prioritise and meet the needs of children and young people with SEND

A return to finish the current cycle will be, “when it is right to do so.” These visits will help them decide when this should be. However, it should be noted that Ofsted has been listening to us and others about the experiences of SEND families during the pandemic and illegality will not go unnoticed. 

Evaluation

The other main publication was an evaluation report of the SEND inspections so far. Remember, these are NOT inspections of individual schools. They are inspecting how your local authority’s education and social care departments and local children’s NHS services are providing for, treating, and supporting children with SEND. 

The local area SEND inspections haven't been perfect by any means. A number of areas have managed to “disguise” their lawless behaviour towards families and escape without a detention, in the form of having to produce a “Written Statement of Action” stating how they would improve. 

But in the world of SEND where external accountability barely exists, these inspections have prodded officials with power, influence, and responsibility to start paying more attention to SEND, and they've made it far more difficult for the same people to deny that deep-rooted problems exist.

“We find that the inspections allow us to collect good evidence on how well areas identify children and young people with SEND and assess and meet their needs. The joint working between inspectorates allows us to get a holistic picture of education and health provision, though there is a need for a greater emphasis on social care in future inspections.”

An evaluation of the framework for inspecting local areas’ special educational needs and/or disabilities services

Inspections have improved practice

The evaluation report emphasised how local area leaders and professionals said the inspections had raised the profile and priority of SEND, which had helped with strategic planning. They, “considered themselves to be more accountable for SEND provision across health, education and social care than they had been previously.” I find it very concerning that it takes the threat or result of an inspection to do this.  Some further quotes from the report:

“Discussions with children and young people and their parents and carers provided valuable insights. But inspectors noted that the limitations of the logistics of the inspection meant that that many parents and carers were unable to participate, for example because of work commitments.”

“Inspectors said that inspection methods, such as case tracking and thematic deep dives, should be explored. These may yield valuable insights into the lived experiences of children and young people.”

“Area leaders and frontline staff also thought that receiving a joint inspection from both Ofsted and the CQC reinforced collective responsibility. We heard that inspections had a pronounced impact in this respect in areas where the partnership had previously not been strong.”

Professionals said an increased focus on SEND at a strategic level had a knock-on effect on the quality of services. Many thought the quality and coordination of EHCPs had improved as a result. (though this may come as a surprise to many parents) Inspectors described them as a ‘real lever for improvement’ as well as a “catalyst” for access to support and funding from external agencies, including the DfE and NHS England.

We think it’s encouraging that Ofsted & CQC have been transparent about how well they think these SEND inspections are working and where improvements are needed. It's also encouraging that children’s social care is going to be more of a focus in future. It’s really positive that they want to change their inspection processes to shine a brighter light on experiences and outcomes for children and young people with SEND. 

How long does the impact last?

The evaluation clearly points to why a continuing cycle of inspections is needed, with some areas that needed a revist showing too little improvement. In other instances, improvements were knee-jerk rather than strategic and sustainable. 

Areas that didn’t fail their only inspection, “…had no imperative to address the areas for development that inspectors identified,”  because of thinking they weren’t going to be looked at again. Ha, Hertfordshire! Joke’s on you!

Improvements needed in the inspection process

Repeatedly mentioned is the lack of focus on social care, with the report noting that the inclusion of a children’s social care inspector in the visiting team could solve this. It was also noted that the letters written after the inspection lacked mention of how well areas obeyed the relevant legislation – which is crucial, considering how avidly other areas awaiting inspection reportedly pore over them.

Other ideas for improvements included:

  • using case tracking of children who are later identified as SEND
  • ‘thematic deep dives’ as ways of understanding the lived experiences of children and young people, and the impact of SEND provision on their outcomes
  • That the framework should fully cover 0–25, both early years and further education
  • How inspectors could draw on evidence from other inspections in helping to decide where best to focus. (Looking at LGO reports would also be a good idea, TT)
  • A requirement to produce an action plan following inspection to give a structure for prioritising and addressing weaker areas. 
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Language matters, Ms Spielman

The third missive came from Ofsted’s lead inspector Amanda Spielman, discussing, “the challenges facing the SEND system, along with Ofsted and CQC’s role going forward.”

Aaaand… the horse fell at the final hurdle. She’s obviously not been reading Matt’s articles closely enough on the importance of not framing the impact of system and organisational failure on families as something we “feel” and perceive.  

“Area arrangements for identifying, assessing and meeting children and young people’s education, health and care needs were frequently slow. They felt like a ‘battle’ for families as their concerns escalated. Too often, families were left feeling dissatisfied with their experience of area SEND arrangements because the quality of services and support failed to live up to what was envisaged in their children’s EHC plans.” (Our italics)

HMCI commentary: the future of area special educational needs and disabilities inspections

This is a repeated problem in Ofsted SEND reports that we have mentioned before and that MUST change: Professionals “say”, families “feel”. One is an imperative, the other is merely an emotion. One is authoritative; the other, something nebulous.

These problems—these battles—aren't something that families "feel". They're something our families, our children and young people, directly, objectively, and undeniably experience. 

They're something that hundreds of thousands of us pay a ruinous price for– financially, career-wise, relationship-wise, mental and physical health-wise, and in the agonising pain of seeing your child not getting the support they need, sometimes for years. And for children, that pain of being excluded from friendship groups, from a suitable education, and from society, is no way to begin a life already full of challenge.

These bitter experiences are credibly and weekly evidenced in upheld complaints to the Local Government Ombudsman. They’re seen in appeals to the SEND Tribunal, upheld in 90% of cases. And these "battles" are something that hundreds of us parents credibly evidenced to the Commons Education Committee's SEND inquiry, who laid out a clear set of recommendations for SEND system improvement - including recommendations to Ofsted. None of which have yet been publicly responded to.

I know that there is genuine desire within Ofsted & CQC to ensure these experiences are transformed for the better and along with them, the lives of disabled children and their families. The new cycles may yet be a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, but I hope it’s a game that can be won.

We have a good start with the continuing cycle of inspections and there are good people involved. But it needs to be done mindfully, ensuring the voices of young people with SEND and their families are front and centre, and given as much weight as that of local leaders. That way, inspectors will better avoid being hoodwinked by the smoke and mirrors of LA obfuscation. 

We will do our bit to offer our experience and we invite you to tell us what you think would make local area SEND inspections work better for improved impact. Have a think, and let us know

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Tania Tirraoro
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anne B

How about equality of language? We could have ‘LA’s feel/believe/claim/ say (delete as applicable) they are providing (insert service.) Parents, however state that this is not the case.
Joking aside, my area hasn’t been inspected once yet, which is strange given that education is so poor that OFSTED felt the need to write an open letter a year or so back. You’d think it might occur to them to check the SEND provision (It wouldn’t take them long because there is no specialist autism provision, either for health or education…)