SEND inspections: what do Ofsted and CQC inspectors really think?

SEND inspections, what do Ofsted and CQC inspectors really think?

There have been a few happenings recently that I have intended to write about but meetings and other commitments, plus the good ol’ Ehlers Danlos, have meant it hasn’t been able to tap out a post about them, but we have shared articles by others on them on our Facebook and Twitter, so it’s a good idea to follow us there.

One meeting I did get to last week was the latest Ofsted SEND Stakeholder Advisory Group. My role there is to represent the parent voice outside of the government-funded network of parent carer forums and I asked for your views before I went on our SNJ Facebook group. 

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Scores on the doors

Much of this post gives updates on Matt’s recent post, from what I learned last week. There have been 92 inspections so far, with findings issued for 83. The programme is on track to finish the first round of inspections by the end of March 2021. Of those who have had reports issued, 42 have been told their SEND is a bit (or a lot) rubbish and been told to write a “Written Statement of Action” explaining how they’re going to pull their socks up. The latest of these is Kent. I don't think anyone was expecting anything different for Kent to be honest. Find your local area’s SEND inspection report here

What amazes me, and I said this in the meeting, is that these local areas who have had two years longer than the first ones to be inspected are still failing. Do they not learn from others’ mistakes? Do they not gather around the litany of dreadful practice from other local area SEND inspections and go, “Well, we better use this as a lesson and make ourselves shiny and excellent.” I was amazed to be told that they do indeed feverishly read through the reports of other areas and yet they STILL don’t seem to be able to get it right.

It is, I was told By André Imich of the DfE, “very difficult” to change, rather like a tanker ship having to change course, they can't do it immediately. But, come on, I said, it’s not immediately, it's been FIVE years this month since the Children and Families Act received Royal Assent. Five long years of pain for families who have been capsized in the wake of these so-called tankers. Many areas initially seemed to simply substitute one lot of paperwork for statements to another lot for EHCPs, until they realised that inspectors from Ofsted & CQC would be coming to call. Since then it seems that they’ve been less turning in a single direction than zig-zagging back and forth, with people falling off the sides in restructures or cuts.

Inspectors at the meeting said it’s becoming apparent that the gap between those local areas that do and don’t get a WSOA is widening, with far fewer poor inspections in London and the East Midlands. This isn’t, I was assured, because it was a result of the same teams scoring leniently, as the inspection teams were different. 

What’s the difference? 

Inspectors say while all areas do seem to have some areas of good practice, a big difference appears to be in the quality of strategic leadership. Another point was about SEN case officers which was the “luck of the draw”. So this is clearly where some guidelines need to be drawn up for training case workers to operate to a set of standards. Some are still little more than admin staff, whereas in other areas, they have had the benefit of IPSEA training. But poor personal skills apart, this is hardly their fault. It lies at the door of poor strategic leadership on the part of both SEND senior managers and council cabinet members. In particular, a lack of strategic commissioning and joint working, poor quality of EHCPs and lack of coproduction are common weaknesses of failing local areas.

Some stronger areas are, in contrast, allowing parent co-producers to help drive options being considered, which is what real co-production looks like. How many LAs will have the guts to follow suit?

Matt wrote about revists last month and one I’ve been watching with interest is Surrey, where I live, (and for whom I am independently contracted to publicise their Local Offer via my social media consultancy.) I didn’t get involved, as I no longer have children eligible for EHCPs (though that may change if one goes on to an apprenticeship). However, the level of dissatisfaction and anger from parents from those I know, is high. But it is equally clear to me that newly-restructured (again) managers are trying to do the right thing. Indeed, I know that this has been the case since the beginning, but the will to change was patchy, and the financial straights Surrey now finds itself in have served to cripple positive changes.

Like all LAs, they are facing growing numbers of EHCP requests from both the 16-25 age group and from families of children whose SEN Support-level help has been stripped away by schools struggling to cope with diminishing budgets. Although brave parents who served Surrey with a Judicial Review over funding cuts recently lost their case, in many ways they still won - they stopped cuts taking place and shone a light on unsustainable cost-cutting measures. In other areas of the country, parent actions are still underway. 

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Revisit woes, what happens next? The inspector view

From the six inspection revisits, three have now been published, with only one making sufficient progress. Local areas have to have made sufficient progress in all aspects of the WSOA, so even if they had improved in three areas of previous weakness out of a total of five, they will be deemed not to be making sufficient progress because each area is significantly weak.

The good news of the revisits is that parental engagement is much higher. For example, while a first visit usually attracted feedback from 200-250 parents, the revisits have had between 800-1900 - a pretty wide range but a big rise. Some of this has to do with a longer time for publicity before the revisit and the first failed inspection tends to raise the profile of the poor state of SEND. 

The other benefit of getting parents to fill out the revisit survey a week before the inspection itself, is that the questions inspectors can put to the LA are informed by, and much more focused on, parents’ concerns - although they still only look at the areas of significant weakness highlighted in the original inspection.

If your LA has a revisit or indeed a first visit coming up, think carefully about the responses you give. Although of course your comments are informed by your own experience, consider also why you think it went wrong and how your feedback can help inspectors ask the hard questions of the local area - health and social care as well as education. Inspectors can’t look at personal cases though.

Newly-updated Inspectors' Handbook

We also touched on the release of the newly updated Inspector’s handbook published this week catchily entitled: “The handbook for the inspection of local areas’ effectiveness in identifying and meeting the needs of children and young people who have special educational needs and/or disabilities” At least it says on the tin what it’s supposed to do.

It’s been changed to include the revisits among other changes, such as to reflect system changes and particularly to reiterate that when Ofsted/CQC talk of “SEND leaders” they are not just talking about school heads. They mean leaders from the top of the education, social care and health departments AND the council cabinet members concerned as well. There is a version for families here although this hasn’t yet been updated, but I’m told it will be.

There will also be an easy read version for young people, as inspectors are particularly keen to increase engagement with children and young people, and to find innovative ways for them to make their views known. Inspectors talked about giving the young people the questions before a feedback meeting to give them time to be supported to formulate their answers. It’s local areas’ responsibility to ensure their young people have the support they need including AAC, sign language or whatever is needed, so other things that can be done to support young people include getting feedback from the school council, choosing neutral settings for meetings to take place and understanding that communication is more than just talking.

The inspections are not, it was emphasised, inspecting Parent Carer Forums as some have felt and they are keen to ensure that local areas are not allowed to “cherry pick” parents to participate. The webinar or survey is available to all, as is the open meeting. When you hear about an upcoming re/inspection, get in touch with your local Parent Carer Forum or LA SEND department to find out when the meeting is and go - if you’re told it’s limited to certain parents, go anyway because the inspectors will want to hear from you. 

We publicise all forthcoming SEND inspections via social media, so be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook and click the options to get notifications of our updates so you don't miss out.

The one that won the revisit

So what did the one area, Rochdale, who did sufficiently well, in inspectors’ opinion, to pass their revisit, do to pass? While you can read Rochdale's letter at the link, there are some things in particular that are looked for.

While inspectors say they’re not expecting perfection in all areas (which is just as well), areas that pass must be able to, “demonstrate systematic progress against a clear action plan” and to demonstrate accountability for parts of their service that are not yet up to scratch, and have a plan to make it so.

Inspectors are looking for evidence that poor strategic leadership has been tackled with urgency and determination, such as for joint commissioning of services, with intelligent gathering of statistics and more working with children and young people.

With the areas that haven’t shown sufficient progress, as Matt has pointed out, there isn’t a firm game plan to be seen, although the revised framework will hopefully help with that (more on that in a moment). 

Gareth Ashcroft of the Department for Education, said the areas that don’t pass their revisit will, at a minimum, be asked to produce a further action plan, but there isn’t a plan to revisit the revisit as it were. It’s up to the Department for Education to decide what it feels are the most important steps, for example, formal discussions with senior officers in the local area. Some areas are apparently “buddying up” with other areas who’ve passed their inspection (but as Matt also pointed out some areas that passed their inspection are being seen to demonstrate increasing amounts of illegal practice themselves).

Funding and inspections

I put to the inspectors Matt’s question about whether funding difficulties are taken into account during an inspection. I was told that while this is understood as an issue, looking at the financial aspects are, “Beyond the competency of the inspectorate”. Inspectors aren’t auditors and making evaluative comments would put them on “unsafe footing”. However, along with the Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, this is something they are looking at but they, “Need to be cautious about how we approach and how we land and what is in scope, and what do we have competency and expertise to comment on”.

And of course the National Audit Office is looking at support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and should report back at some point in the Spring. But inspectors were keen to point out that although funding is an issue, they do go into poorly-funded areas and see good practice or where leadership is working and culture is good.

Other quick points of note

  • Ofsted/CQC are also looking at how accessible the letter to parents about the inspection is  - we at SNJ are MORE than happy to help with that. We’re parents and we are clearly good communicators - plus we have an army of parents who will also be more than happy to comment. 
  • They’ve found the different routes of redress are not well understood by parents and areas where the SENDIASS are not as effective leave parents vulnerable. 
  • I passed on a parent’s suggestion that inspectors audit Local Offer websites to check that key information is on there. I was told they do a “mystery shopper” for each area’s Local Offer, but there isn’t a formal audit tool. However, the idea was thought to be interesting - and especially perhaps getting parental input on what you would want to find on there.
  • Ofsted has specific powers (under section 11A-C of the Education Act 2005, as amended) to investigate qualifying complaints and decide to bring forward a school’s inspection.
  • Inspectors DO take note of decisions about cases of LA poor SEND practice by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO)
  • The role of the Designated Medical/Clinical Officer is always mentioned in each report. Inspectors say very rarely do they find someone that has cracked the strategic role of the DMO regarding where they sit within the SEND structure. However, NHS England has commissioned a review of this and it will be ready in the next few weeks.
  • Inspectors are undergoing ICAN communication training 
  • As part of the draft framework they are evaluating what may need to change, for example do SEND inspections allow them to find out can find if local areas are effective in their statutory duties and do they let them know how LAs are supporting young people with SEND
  • The landscape of SEND isn’t mature enough to say that SEND inspections won’t be needed post 2021, but “Whatever happens it needs to move on from language of implementation more to the experience of families.”  However Ofsted’s SEND Specialist Inspector, Jonathan Jones, says it’s worth noting that this is dependent on the spending review and is about the experience of children, young people and their families.

I’ve reported much of the meeting above without comment so that you can make up your own. While it's often entertaining to litter the article with asides, sometimes it’s better for the reportage to speak for itself.

However, as Malcolm reported you can still feedback on the draft Inspection framework. As Claire Ryan wrote here, parents aren’t happy with aspects of it and she will hopefully soon be back to report on what her own meeting with Ofsted regarding this revealed.

Of course, if we are all derailed by Brexit and the government collapses, all bets are off. And then where will we be?

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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