Yesterday I was interviewed by BBC TV news about the Ofsted Annual report. It’s not an unusual occurrence, being contacted by various news organisations to talk about the crisis in SEND. It’s just depressing after more than a decade – and four since the “reforms” – I’m still having to say the same thing.
Almost every report that comes out of charities, researchers, Ofsted and the DfE’s own commissioned research - many of which we have covered on SNJ -- reports the same picture: Not enough money, not enough SEND in teachers’ training, too many children being excluded, too many poor outcomes for disabled children, rising numbers heading to Tribunal, not enough mental health support in schools, too high criteria for access to CAMHS, insufficient support in mainstream, too, too many children in crisis.
It physically hurts to keep writing about it. And I know, from having been there, how much it hurts families going through it. I want to give up and run away and do something that actually pays, now my boys are older (My eldest was 21 earlier this week, my youngest is 19). But those families still deep in the hell that is the SEND process, and those about to plunge, cannot walk away; indeed, they know they MUST not walk away despite the stress, the hurt and the fury that the system invokes.
Behind the Ofsted report headlines
The headlines of the report were covered in the press yesterday, who can jump on it early but whose reporters miss the depth of context, so I’m adding further quotes from the report here.
The BBC producer I spoke to yesterday for example didn’t know about the SEND inquiry. This is why, although it’s heartening that I’m constantly asked for help by journalists covering the SEND story du jour, the fleeting nature of the news cycle means it’s forgotten the next day.
“Something is deeply wrong when parents repeatedly tell inspectors that they have to fight to get the help and support that their child needs. And I’m not talking about middle class parents wanting extra time in exams for their child. I mean adequate support for our most vulnerable children with SEND, which is a basic expectation of a decent, developed society. We need to do better.Amanda Spielman, Ofsted Chief Inspector
The Ofsted report was damning in the extreme about SEND provision – all it had to do was look at the results of its own (and CQC’s) SEND area inspections, where almost half of those local areas so far inspected have failed to meet expectations. And we’re still not even halfway through the first round.
“In the second year of our local area SEND inspections, we have seen a continuing lack of coordinated 0–25 strategies and poor post-19 provision. We have seen a continuing trend of rising exclusions among children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND). Mental health needs are not being supported sufficiently. The quality of education, health and care (EHC) plans is far too variable. Critically, the gap in performance and outcomes for children with SEND is widening between the best and the worst local areas.”Ofsted Annual Report 2018
“We are still seeing too many local areas providing a sub-standard service when it comes to SEND provision. At the end of our second year of LA SEND inspections, we have inspected 68 local areas. Thirty of these have been required to provide a written statement of action.”Ofsted Annual Report 2018
And, I might add, that any number of those areas who “passed” their SEND inspection should not have, according to local parents.
That translates to tens of thousands of disabled children being failed by their school, health service, social care and local authorities. And, as I said, that’s just from the areas that have been inspected so far. It’s sickening. Because these are not inanimate institutions, they are run by tax-payer-funded human beings who are systematically failing in their legal duties, and their jobs, to support vulnerable children.
It means children aren’t being assessed when they should be and when they do get an EHCP, it often isn’t legally compliant:
“… the quality of these (EHC) plans is far too variable within some local areas and across the country, and contributions from care services to EHC plans are weak. The areas that have successfully implemented the government’s reforms are jointly commissioning services that support parents and lead to good outcomes for young people....
...But many EHC plans have not been successfully implemented. As a result, the gap in outcomes for children with SEND continues to widen. Identification of SEND is weak and those who do not quite meet the threshold for an EHC plan have poor outcomes. Understandably, this leads to many parents feeling that to do the best for their children, they need to go to extreme lengths to secure an EHC plan, which of course not every child will need.”Ofsted Annual Report 2018
Or at least they wouldn’t have needed and EHCP if they'd had early enough intervention. LAs know early intervention works—and yet so many deny assessments at an early stage and have closed, or are planning to close, local Children’s Centres. They expect parents, often without cars, to be able to travel across or between towns via expensive or non-existent public transport – with children in tow - to get to their next nearest. Ain’t gonna happen.
“We are still seeing too many local areas providing a sub-standard service when it comes to SEND provision…Frontline workers are clearly dedicated and professional, but improvement in many local areas is often slow and inconsistent. In particular, in the areas we visited, we are seeing:
- a continuing trend of rising exclusions among children and young people who have SEND
- mental health needs not being supported
- children and young people who have autism waiting up to 2 years to be diagnosed; some were not being educated at all during this time
- a continuing lack of coordinated 0–25 strategies and poor post-19 provision”Ofsted Annual Report 2018
Is funding to blame?
Yes, partly, but it’s far from the only reason. Lack of funding is integral, especially fully-resourcing the 16-25 year olds who were promised much, only to discover the Children and Families Act has played out like the proverbial Mercedes in the driveway but no food in the fridge. If that’s too obscure, it means it’s all show and no substance.
But it’s lack of culture change that is just as important. The very thing we have said from the beginning that was crucial to success. I haven’t heard much in the SEND inquiry about this specifically (though see more, further down).
Fine words about improving outcomes for children with SEND, as echoed in LAs up and down the land, have not, and are not, translating into changes in belief. It’s like their lips are moving but their heart’s not in it because somewhere, deep down, they think it’s either the fault of feckless or faulty parenting or, conversely, middle-class, sharp-elbowed parents “gaming the system”. I thought this attitude had disappeared, but I was asked this very question on LBC Radio just the other week. Yes, I gave him an ear-bashing, but the “hostile environment” brought by austerity and compounded by Brexit, has ramped up attitudes against anyone who needs to ask the state for some kind of help, against people with disabilities and against those from racial minorities.
Off-rolling, schools’ dirty little secret, uncovered (again)
Ofsted describs off-rolling as "the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion, or by encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil. Off-rolling in these circumstances is a form of ‘gaming’'.
This is not the same as a formal, legally conducted exclusion and Ofsted has identified around 300 schools with ‘exceptional levels’ of pupils coming off school rolls and not reappearing elsewhere, between Years 10 and 11. Ofsted acknowledges it’s the most vulnerable children who are more likely to be excluded or off-rolled. Its new education inspection framework (EIF) is aimed at changing this, by focusing more on inclusion as a mark of a good school, and less on league tables. Will it make a difference? Let’s keep watching.
Parents speak to the SEND Inquiry
At the same time as the Ofsted Annual Report was making news, six parents of disabled children were taking part in the SEND Inquiry hearings before the Education Select Committee in Westminster, three of whom represented parent carer forums.
The parents’ stories in the first half were bad and difficult to hear but not unique, far from it. They are stories we’ve heard repeatedly If you want to watch it all, you can do so here.
Earlier this week, the Inquiry published 600 submissions to the Inquiry and said it will still accept further submissions until the publication of the report.
To be honest, I’m not sure what else can be said that they have not already heard, unless it is more about how the lack of culture change has heavily impacted on these reforms. As we said at the start, there is little point in changing the structure of a system if those administering it are going to simply overwhelm it by doing the same things they’ve always done because ‘that’s the way they do it”
Taking up this theme was the stand-out speaker, for me, Penny Hoffman-Becking. Penny is from Kingston and Richmond where her PCF, SEND Family Voices, recently closedbecause the local authority was refusing to work with them, leaving them to conclude that co-production in that environment and culture just wasn’t possible.
I’ve isolated a few minutes of Penny speaking because what she says sums up the experience of many parents who have worked their guts out in PCFs, only to end up disillusioned and exhausted. I urge you to watch and tell us if that’s also your experience too.
The other issue is Brexit, yet again. If parliament is dissolved because of a snap election, the SEND Inquiry goes bye bye. And that really will be a tragedy.