What’s next for Ofsted/CQC SEND Inspections? And is accountability about to nosedive?

Last week, Ofsted published a report on the experiences of children and young people with SEND during the pandemic. The report is well worth a read – but it’s long, and if time is short then you can read our summary here.

On the same day that they released the report, Ofsted also put out some information on the future for inspecting local area SEND services – in particular, their plans to introduce more and better SEND service inspections under a ‘new framework,’ working with the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Why do they need a new inspections framework?

In 2015, Ofsted and the CQC were instructed by the Department for Education to go and inspect local area SEND services, to check how well they were implementing the reforms introduced by the 2014 Children & Families Act. The ‘local area’ is the local authority, and whatever NHS Clinical Commissioning Group(s) work with them.

These local area SEND inspections started in 2016. They were supposed to be a one-off, with each local area inspected just once over a five year period. The inspection cycle was supposed to finish in April 2021, but COVID put paid to that, and so they’re now about three-quarters of the way through. You can find more detail on how these inspections have proceeded so far in this article

After a slow start, it quickly became apparent that a one-shot inspection wasn’t going to be enough to drive and sustain accountability and improvement. So in 2018, the Department for Education asked Ofsted and the CQC to do two things: to start revisiting the weakest local area SEND services soon, and to start designing a new SEND inspection framework to follow the first one. They confirmed a new cycle of inspections last year.

It’s unclear why it’s taken three years to get here, but Ofsted & the CQC have now reached a point where they’re willing to say something about the next SEND inspection framework.

The new Area SEND inspection framework

You can find what Ofsted said about the new SEND inspection framework here. Nothing’s set in stone yet – this framework will eventually go out for consultation, and the inspectors plan to run some pilots to test their ideas before finalising anything. But a few things are likely to stand the test of time. 

We will set out our proposals in-depth as part of a formal consultation, ahead of launching the new framework. All of our plans are subject to the outcome of the spending review. But I want to share now some of the most significant changes we intend to make. These are to:

-- focus more sharply on the impact of local area SEND arrangements on children and young people

-- drive improvement across England through a new system of inspections

-- broaden the scope of our inspection to include all children in alternative provision (AP), not just those with SEND

Amanda Spielman, HMCI Commentary

Firstly, Ofsted & the CQC want to broaden the scope of SEND inspections. Currently, the remit they have is just to assess whether local areas are implementing the 2014 SEND reforms effectively. 

Now, they want their inspections to look more on the impact that local areas have on the lived experience of children and young people with SEND. When they evaluate local areas, Ofsted and CQC say that they the bottom line to be “whether they make sustained and significant improvement for children, young people and their families.”

Secondly, they want the new SEND inspections to be a continuous cycle, not a one-off. How lengthy this cycle is, we don’t yet know – and a lot will probably depend on what resources both inspectorates are able and willing to devote. All the same, this would mean that SEND inspectors will always be back in the local area at some point in time, like they are with school and children’s service inspections. 

Ofsted also set out a three-tier assessment approach for their new inspection framework, and it’s a reasonable bet that this will still be in place when they finalise the new arrangements. When thinking about what would make a local area SEND service work best, this is what Ofsted & the CQC want to focus on:

Strategic leadership

On Strategic Leadership: In a high-quality local area, inspectors would expect to see:

“a shared and ambitious vision for children and young people with SEND… …underpinned by high aspirations for children and driven by a person-centred way of working. Local authorities and all the main partners must sign up to a shared vision and to taking responsibility for children and young people with SEND. Doing so will require them to embed this vision in their own organisations and to work in partnership with others to achieve the best possible outcomes. Leaders of health and care providers, colleges, academies, maintained and independent schools, and early years settings all have a critical role to play. They cannot work alone.”

If that’s in place, then inspectors expect to see “robust and strategic” joint commissioning, based on “a strong understanding of local needs and informed by engagement and co-production with children, young people and families.”

Most families – including those of us in the most radioactive local areas – have seen plenty of glossy LA strategy brochures and PowerPoint presentations that pretend that this is already happening. We know how often this falls short of reality, and we’ve communicated it – forcefully – to inspectors.

So this time round, Ofsted & the CQC plan to look more closely at whether the local area’s strategy is actually making a difference to children and young people with SEND – which takes them to...

High Quality Practice

Practice: Ofsted says that “high-quality practice across all universal and specialist services is what really distinguishes the most successful area SEND arrangements from those that are not working well enough.” 

Inspectors want to focus not just on looking at the quality of practice, but on the quality of the relationships that education, health and care services have with children and families. If all this is in place, then it, “should result in children’s needs being identified [at] the right time and assessed in a timely and effective way.”

This pillar of the new framework sounds good – but a lot will depend on how consistently and rigorously inspectors evaluate real frontline practice, and it’ll also depend on what types of practice they consider to be acceptable.  

If this part of the new inspection framework is to work effectively, it will have to unearth, challenge and reverse toxic practice in local areas more effectively than it does now. A clear example of the problem is this misleading, divisive, and thus far unchallenged recent SENCO training document from Hertfordshire (pdf, found archived online here). Herts sailed through their local area SEND inspection in 2016.

Update: Herts got in touch after this article was published to say,

"The linked document is a set of notes written by a partner organisation following a short information sharing briefing in October last year. It's not a Hertfordshire County Council owned document, it does not form part of our SENCo training, and the content of this document is the interpretation of the partner agency of the briefing. The notes do not reflect an agreed summary of the briefing and were not shared with us before being shared on the partner agencies website. They are not present on our Local Offer website. We have spoken to the partner agency involved to clarify some areas within the notes, and asked them to remove these notes from their website and resources."

Herts County Council statement in reply to this post

This was an EHCP workshop delivered by Hertfordshire County Council employees to 25 SENCOs in October. The sessions were clearly advertised as training by the facilitators, DSPL7 - a district-level SEND agency structure that includes LA officers. However, in their statement, Herts failed to take the opportunity to explain which parts - if any - of the workshop notes inaccurately depict what their SEND employees said. We will be asking them to specify. We'll also ask them whether any part of the workshop was co-produced with parents and carers. Additionally, we're asking Herts for a copy of the workshop presentation and script, plus a recording of any content delivered online. Once we get those, we'll let you know.

Real, tangible, improvements

The final pillar of the new inspection framework will be what matters to families most on a day-to-day basis: improvements in the experiences, progress and outcomes for children and young people with SEND.

In theory, if the local area’s strategy, leadership and ambition is right, and if the local area’s practice is good, then Ofsted & CQC believe – firmly - that significant and sustained improvement for our kids will flow from that. People who believe that funding is the only real problem in the SEND system will disagree, but they’ll get their chance to say so in the consultation.

It looks likely that in this area, inspectors plan to draw heavily on evidence of lived experience from families, and particularly from children and young people with SEND:

“In the best area SEND arrangements, children and families will tell us they are influential in decision-making. They can give honest and open feedback that leaders then act on. They will tell us how the support they have received has enabled them to progress, and make effective transitions from one stage of their lives to the next. It will have helped them to prepare for their next steps in education, employment and training, as well as their adult lives. Children and young people will be as healthy as they can be. They will be valued, visible and included in the communities where they live and work.”

This change in focus is encouraging – but inspectors will need to develop much more effective ways of capturing and assessing robust evidence from families than they have to date. And some of them will need to rethink how they weigh our evidence: there are still too many SEND inspection reports where parents “feel,” whereas school staff “report” and local area officials “state.” Most of all – and it’s not for want of trying - inspectors will need to find new and better ways to collect evidence from children and young people with SEND.* 

Ofsted are also thinking about whether to include local area arrangements for alternative provision (AP) in their new area SEND inspections. Strictly speaking, AP goes beyond SEND – but a lot of kids in AP have SEND, and Ofsted think that “local areas’ graduated response and commissioning strategies for AP and SEND are also likely to be intertwined.”

What happens next?

Ofsted and CQC have set out a bare-bones approach to a new area SEND inspection framework. The next thing they plan to do is to put some flesh on it. That means working out what evidence they need to collect so that they can make robust inspection judgements, and planning how an inspection would work on the ground. At some point, they’ll run a public consultation on their proposals, and they’ll also run some pilot inspections to road-test their new approach.

It’s also worth bearing in mind some of the things that Ofsted haven’t talked about yet.

  • Will these new-model area SEND inspections come with a specific judgement from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’, like school inspections do?
  • Will these inspections tackle social care for children and young people with SEND more rigorously, or will that be left to other inspection regimes?  
  • What exactly will happen when a local area is found to have serious SEND weaknesses?
  • Will Ofsted & the CQC also run ‘thematic’ SEND inspections (eg looking nationally or regionally at the state of provision for autistic children or deaf children) as well as local area SEND inspections?

And also, who’s paying for it? Thus far, the local area SEND inspections have been funded out of a specific contract that Ofsted has with the Department for Education – which will run out when the current inspection cycle finishes. 

When outlining what they’d like to do with the new SEND inspections, Ofsted say that “all of our plans are subject to the outcome of the [Treasury’s] spending review”, which should unfold in the back half of 2021. Ofsted’s leaders have clearly signalled to Parliament that without more resources, they don’t have the capacity to expand inspections across the board.

Hopefully, Ofsted & the CQC will find or get resources to commit to a new SEND inspection framework – but it would be very on-brand for SEND if their proposals foundered for a lack of funding and strategic resolve.

A sting in the tail… revisits (and accountability?) cancelled

These proposals also come with a downside – a sharp downside, if you live in a local area that’s yet to be inspected. 

It looks like the aim is to get the new area SEND inspection system up and running at some point in 2022. But there are still 34 local areas that have yet to have a complete, full SEND inspection under the current system – and last month, Ofsted & the CQC quietly made an important change to inspection arrangements for these local areas.

Under the current system, if Ofsted & the CQC find serious weaknesses in a local area’s SEND services during the inspection, then they order the local area to prepare a ‘written statement of action’ (WSOA), which forces the local area to explain exactly when and how they’ll fix things. Ofsted & the CQC then re-visit the local area (at least 18 months afterwards) to check whether the local area has actually made the improvements that it committed to make in the WSOA.

These re-visits, grafted on to the inspection framework in 2018, have become a crucial part of the current SEND accountability system

But there are 34 local areas that have yet to complete a full first inspection. If one of these local areas is inspected after June 2021 and is found to have serious SEND weaknesses, then Ofsted & CQC won’t be conducting a formal re-visit under the current system.

Instead, if one of these local areas is instructed to produce a WSOA after its inspection, then inspectors “will determine, on an individual basis, what further visits or inspection activity will be appropriate for these local areas.”

Why? It’s because inspectors don’t want to work two separate SEND inspection frameworks at the same time. Ofsted & the CQC want their new inspection framework up and running in 2022, and they don’t want to run re-visits under the old system at the same time as they’re running full inspections under the new system. 

This is not good news for families and front-line professionals in local areas who’ve yet to be inspected. If you live one of these local areas – places like Barnsley, Bournemouth, Buckinghamshire, Tower Hamlets, or Warwickshire – then you’ve already been waiting for some form of meaningful external accountability for nearly SEVEN years now – and when it arrives, it’ll be truncated.

On top of that, there are another 30 local areas who’ve been inspected pre-pandemic, who’ve had to submit a WSOA, but who are still waiting on their re-visit. Ofsted & the CQC aren’t guaranteeing that these re-visits will happen either– their handbook now only says that it’s “likely” that they will. 

So will those local areas get a re-visit? Most probably will, but it’ll depend on things that Ofsted & the CQC can’t control (whether pandemic lockdown conditions return, for example), and things that inspectors very much can control, like exactly when they’ll start up the new SEND inspection system.

The inspectors’ determination not to run two different frameworks in parallel – even for a few months – is likely to have a temporary, but important depressive effect on accountability. And the families that it’ll affect the most will those that live in local areas with the least external accountability.

How can I get involved?

Ofsted say they “will be looking for stakeholders to shape our framework further, through a public consultation and a programme of pilots in local areas.” None of that has been scheduled yet, but we’ll let you know more once their plans firm up. The public consultation in 2015 for the original local area SEND inspections was superficial – we’re hoping for something more developed this time around. Keep ’em peeled…

Inspections results so far

Our most recent article on the SEND inspections so far is here. Updated maps for 2021 are below

Inspections Map
Click image to enlarge Find the interactive version here
Click image to enlarge. Inspections Map - Colour Blind version. Interactive version here

You can find interactive versions of the above using the links under the images.

*SNJ publishes details of all upcoming inspections for Area SEND on our main social media channels, please follow and enable notifications to make sure you don't miss them. Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn

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Matt Keer

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