So the chickens have come home to roost, hopefully. The SEND Ofsted/CQC Inspectors have given Surrey a right kicking, and deservedly so.
"Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills has determined that a Written Statement of Action is required because of significant areas of weakness in the local area’s practice. The Chief Inspector has also determined that the local authority and the area’s clinical commissioning group (CCG) are responsible for submitting the written statement to Ofsted"
The report makes fairly unmitigated, grim, grave reading. It's not possible to cover it all so if you want to read it in full, you can find it here. But I will cover the lowlights and a response from Surrey. I'll even mention a few good bits, just to be fair.
There have been a number of inspection reports now. None have been good, inside-out shit sandwiches at best, but only one other (so far) has been given the same demand for urgent action. Surrey's means more to me of course, because I live here and both my boys have EHCPs and, before that, Statements of SEN. As a former co-chair of the parent carer forum during the pathfinder trials for the new system, I was involved in many, many workstream meetings, where the enthusiasm for the reforms varied considerably among LA staff, whatever they actually said in meetings.
I'm now involved again, as a member of the Local Offer workstream after the first attempt at the website was so bad it was impossible to find anything on it. I'm hoping my experience from running SNJ and my knowledge of Surrey will have a positive impact. I'm also trying to help them publicise it, but it seems this is frustratingly far from as simple as it should be.
"Leaders have been unsuccessful in promoting the ‘local offer’ of provision to all parents. Many of the parents whom inspectors met were not aware of this central facility, despite it being developed and then redesigned in partnership with parents’ representatives."
Quite. I do know how to fix this, and who knows, perhaps this spanking will help clear the way for it to happen. But while the the local offer should be central to any LA's SEND policy, the inspection report shows that good policy and timely decision-making is something that Surrey's SEND department isn't very familiar with. Surrey's way of doing things is, according to the inspectors, more than a bit rubbish.
When the inspection came around, I was invited to give feedback at some focus groups. I, and a couple of parent carer forum members, were quite outnumbered by LA officers waxing on about how they had started wonderful new SEND initiatives. Two years after implementation and another two after they started trialling it, no less, a point I made several times. And during these past two years, many parents have encountered uphill battles with transfers to and applications for EHCPs, that have taken up to a year or more instead of 20 weeks, ours included. Despite these sparkly initiatives, so many are still mired in the misery of an unresponsive and obstructive SEND department all the way to the First Tier Tribunal.
As well as focus groups, parent carers reported their experiences via a webinar held during the week. In fact, so many people participated, they had to extend the session. Many more sent in emails about their experiences - and few of them had anything good to say. It did not bode well for the SEND department. The inspectors, it seems, were not blinded by the glittery array of initiatives. Far from it.
- The timeliness, suitability and quality of statutory assessments and plans, including when statements are transferred to education, health and care plans.
Slow progress being made in the transfer to EHC plans with 54% of old statements of SEN remaining to be transferred....The overwhelming dissatisfaction of parents and carers in the county’s arrangements for assessment and planning leads to high rates of appeal to first tier tribunal. The vast majority of appeals made by parents are against the content of the statement or EHC plan provided. A high proportion of appeals are settled with parents before tribunals are held. Of tribunals which do take place, a high proportion are found in favour of the parents’ submission. This suggests that parents’ concerns are valid.
Message to Surrey - just stop it. Stop being adversarial, stop thinking it's still the bad old days. Stop the brinkmanship. Stop farming out EHCPs (and families' data) to outside companies. Stop lying, delaying, misinforming, ignoring. Start training everyone in how to work effectively and compassionately with parents. (Why not ask us?)
You may well need to start, at this point, with some Restorative Justice and, by the way, the expertise for training for this already exists in your team. Use it.
- The under-developed and often limited involvement of parents and carers, and the narrow range of those included, in planning, monitoring and evaluating services. The ineffective promotion of the local offer, and the incomplete statutory transition plan.
See above for comments about the local offer. As to the narrow and limited involvement of parent carers, you cannot simply rely on the local PCF. You MUST look to all sections of the community who don't want to join a group but who do want their voices heard. You know where they are, after all.
- The inefficient management and coordination of area information, in administrative processes, to inform evaluation of services and outcomes, and to hold leaders and staff at all levels to account for rapid improvement.
The report cited weaknesses in coordinating information, slowing assessment and planning processes.
"These weaknesses limit leaders’ analysis, so staff at all levels are insufficiently held to account for the rapid improvement which is required. In addition, parents and schools continue to experience widely varying quality of service from the county’s four administrative areas."
MY VIEW: Surrey’s SEND department is split into four, largely autonomous, "quadrants" which, the inspectors found, meant hardly anyone knew what anyone else was doing and no one was being held to account for not doing the right thing. More shockingly, the inspectors said, "These issues are recognised by leaders, but action to rectify them lacks urgency and is only at the stage of an options paper, which is under consideration. Any decision is yet to be proposed, or indeed made.”
For me, this is a crucial problem in Surrey. The county is a behemoth that can move incredibly slowly. Innovative quick-win ideas can get delayed or squashed by other departments’ self-interest and internal politics, at the expense of supporting children. The four quadrants mean that there is little cohesion or uniformity of decision-making across the county, so two children with similar needs at opposite ends of the county can end up with very different levels of support. These four silos MUST be amalgamated under one senior, visionary central team with county-wide oversight, creating complete transparency of action.
- The relatively low identification of need at school support level, indicating inefficiencies in the early identification of special educational needs and/or disabilities.
Delays in the identification and assessment of children’s and young people’s special educational needs, including in the early years, compromises individuals’ progress. This is also the case when the provision of therapies is delayed and when families experience difficulties accessing CAMHS.
The local area identifies relatively low numbers of pupils needing school support for their special educational needs, while identifying relatively high numbers requiring statements or EHC plans. Leaders have rightly identified that this indicates weaknesses in the early identification of special educational needs.
- The increasing rates of absence and exclusion experienced by children and young people who have special educational needs and/or disabilities in mainstream schools.
In 2016, achievement in Surrey at the end of key stage 1 fell sharply compared with the national picture. This decline affected all pupils including those who have special educational needs and/or disabilities. Education officers are working with school leaders to recover these standards in 2017.
MY VIEW: WTF? This is one of the richest areas in the country. This is a story in itself. What the hell happened and why? We should definitely be told.
Rates of absence for school-age pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities, at school support and with EHC plans, have increased recently, after previously reducing. Absences for Surrey pupils at school support were above the national average for this group in 2015 (the latest comparable figures).
Fixed-term exclusion rates for pupils who have special educational needs in Surrey’s mainstream schools, at school support and with statements or EHC plans, remained above national figures in 2015, with exclusions for pupils receiving school support showing a rising trend. The rate of permanent exclusion for both groups of pupils also shows a continuing increase, rising to above the latest nationally published figure for pupils with a statement or EHC plan. This troubling picture has not been thoroughly evaluated by officers or identified as an area for improvement.
Again, WTF? It looks as thought Surrey is happy to write off a significant proportion of children without asking why these children are failing. This is one of the fundamental tenets of the reforms. To paraphrase, if a child is not succeeding, find out why then do something about it that will improve their outcomes. HINT: Read the SEND Code of Practice 6.1-6.10. Hell, read all of it, why don't you? Then tell your workmates to read it. Then obey it. If you don't understand some of it, ask someone who does. Try IPSEA.
Seriously, you'd think this was some deprived area of the country, not the richest county outside London. Although, Surrey's council leader recently complained that it's one of the most poorly funded for young people with learning disabilities.
The fact is though, it's nothing to do with money. It's to do with the will to do things for the benefit of the people they're there to help - children and young people with disabilities. It's about living up to the ethos of the reforms and training its staff and managers to follow the law.
Surrey, I know, cares a lot about its "brand". This inspection report has certainly made a sizeable dent in that and if it wants to stop looking like the grinch who stole Christmas teamed up with the ghost of Christmas past, it needs to stop thinking about itself and start thinking about the people it's supposed to serve.
Positives far outweighed by shockers
Almost every positive is tempered by a negative:
A single EHC plan template is firmly in place across the county, supporting consistency in planning and review. However, the quality of plans varies greatly. Where EHC planning is effective, intended outcomes and precise strategies are set out clearly….However, in many cases seen by inspectors, plans set out very broad aims, lacking clear measures of success. Plans frequently list the number of sessions to be provided by therapists, rather than the expected outcome of the therapy. This broad approach limits the precision of provision and effective review. More broadly, the development of meaningful and measurable outcomes continues to be a key area for improvement across all services and agencies.
MY VIEW: I know from experience that Surrey’s template is not easy to understand. Poorly trained case officers (not their fault) and the large number of plans outsourced to be written by someone who’s never met the child, means consistency is low and illegal EHCPs issued are, according to the inspectors, common. However, Surrey is to begin trialling the Wiki online EHCP that we have covered (and told Surrey about) and this is a very positive step forward.
But if you're not already thoroughly disgusted, how about this pièce de résistance. Even the "strengths" are not quite what they seem:
"Transition to EHC plans at post-16 appears to be going more smoothly but inspectors were, “unable to verify exactly how well transfers are progressing, due to contradictions in the information that managers use to track this work.”
"Published information about the achievement of Surrey pupils identified as having special educational needs and/or disabilities compares favourably with the national picture. However, weaknesses in the identification and assessment of these pupils mean this picture is incomplete and cannot be relied upon as an accurate reflection."
MY VIEW: Sigh. It’s too kind to say County Hall is covered in rose-tinted glass. This is actually the same as this Fake News everyone’s going on about in the news-o-sphere. “We want it to be true, so we will say it is. As we have no evidence (and neither do you), who’s to say we’re wrong?” Who indeed?
What the LA said in response
It goes on and on and I've already cut this post back significantly, so do read the entire thing and, if you work for another LA, think hard. If any of this looks like you, act now.
I was going to insert some positives but I can't be bothered. I'm too sick at heart. There are some though, and they are recent, in that things are starting to change thanks to new leadership and this is noted in the report. I hope it continues. But it is far from the experience of the vast percentage of parents in Surrey.
I will, however, include comments from the relatively new Director of Children's Services, Julie Fisher.
"The inspectors acknowledge that we have started to make progress. They are very clear, however, that we need to increase the pace and scale of improvements, for example around identifying needs at an earlier stage and ensuring children, young people and families have a better experience.
I think we would all agree that there is still a lot more to do to focus in a targeted way on the goals we set out in our SEND 2020 Development Plan.
In my view, the findings of the inspection are a reflection of how all of us in the SEND Partnership work together, and the inspection has highlighted the need for the local area to do things differently across the SEND system.
If the Ofsted/CQC letter makes difficult reading at times for us, it is worth remembering that the inspectors’ judgment is that we are aware of where improvements are needed, as well as the importance of rebuilding relationships with parents and carers.
It is important also to note that all the children and young people with special needs or disabilities who were met by the inspectors felt happy, safe and well cared for.
They found that our new SEND leadership has generally been welcomed. Schools and representatives of families reported to inspectors that they felt they were now being listened to. But let’s not forget the frustration among parents and carers who have felt excluded from decisions affecting their children when they have wanted to be partners in determining their care and learning support arrangements.
I am sure I will have your support in committing to learn the lessons from the inspection and increasing the pace and scale of our improvement work with families and partners. This will also be an essential step in restoring parents’ and carers’ confidence.
Our next step is to refresh our SEND 2020 Development Plan within the context of our significant funding challenges. Our plan will incorporate the inspectors’ recommendations, with the key focus on working with families to ensure that children get the right support at the right time.
You can read the Ofsted/CQC letter here.
Progress from these inspections are, I'm told, monitored by the DfE's team of SEND Advisors but they are few. Can the DfE increase the number of Advisors to ensure progress is made and sustained?
I also hope Surrey will keep us updated with its progress and I am, myself, open to being engaged to help improve things in any way I can. There is no point me criticising without being prepared to help make things better. I'm already doing this with the local offer because I want younger parents to have a better experience than my peers are currently having. It's what SNJ is all about and (absolutely, seriously) the only reason I haven't chucked in the towel already.
Finally here's a positive. Do you like the new website? 😉
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
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