Just under three years ago, inspectors from Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission began checking up on England’s SEND services.
The original plan was a one-shot gig – inspect SEND services in each of England’s 152 ‘local areas’ (that’s the local authority, plus the NHS commissioning groups that work within it), check to make sure the 2014 SEND reforms were being implemented effectively, and wrap the job up in 2021.
Plans don’t often survive reality unscathed, and that’s what’s happened here. The powers that be who commissioned and designed these inspections didn’t anticipate the scale of underperformance in local area SEND services.
Where are we now?
We’re now just over halfway through the inspections – check out the infographics for more detail, and to see what’s happened in your local area and region. But here’s how things stand in mid-March 2019:
- 82 of the 152 local areas have been inspected, and have received an ‘outcome letter’ detailing their performance in implementing the SEND reforms. Five more are awaiting the result of their inspection.
- Local area SEND inspections aren’t like school inspections: there’s no grade from outstanding to inadequate. But in 40 of the 82 local areas – nearly half of them – inspectors found performance poor enough that they invoked their most serious sanction: instructing the local area to submit a written statement of action (WSOA), a plan showing how council and NHS leaders are going to improve the service.
- Inspection outcomes are getting worse over time: in 2016’s inspections, 25% of local areas were told to write a written statement of action. In 2017, 51% of local areas had to submit one. And in 2018, nearly 60% of local areas inspected had to put a WSOA together. There’s not a clear reason why, but it’s highly likely that inspection standards have risen since the first visits in 2016.
There’s also a disparity in outcomes by region: London and the East Midlands have performed relatively well in these inspections, but outcomes in Yorkshire and the North East have been much poorer. Again, it’s not exactly clear why, but it’s notable that many inspections in the North have been led by Ofsted’s most experienced & capable SEND specialists.
Written Statements of Action
So what happens when a local area is told to submit a written statement of action? We’ve covered this in a previous SNJ article, but here’s how it works:
In their outcome letter, the inspectors will have identified several areas where they feel serious improvement is needed. For each of these areas, the local area writes a draft plan outlining:
- what the intended outcome will be;
- what needs to improve to achieve the outcome, and by when;
- who in the local area is responsible for ensuring that improvement happens, and;
- the indicators or steps that will tell the local area that it is actually improving.
All fine: but someone has to make sure that the local area is delivering on the plan, and the original arrangements for that were pretty hazy. The architects probably anticipated that this would be an occasional outcome – not something that would end up being needed for half of England’s local areas.
So the task of making sure the local area was getting its house in order was largely left to a roving band of DfE & NHS consultants – in some cases, the same consultants who had reported no serious problems with the local area prior to the inspection.
There were clear problems emerging with this gossamer-thin monitoring process. So in July 2018, the Department for Education announced two things:
- Firstly, that they’d get Ofsted and CQC to monitor the local areas that had to submit a written statement of action, check on their progress, and advise the DfE on next steps.
- Secondly, DfE would ask Ofsted & CQC to design a second cycle of local area SEND inspections, to start once the first cycle of inspections had finished in 2021.
The Re-Visit Process
Ofsted & CQC set about designing a monitoring process in the autumn of 2018, and what emerged was a system of ‘re-visits’. You can find the full re-visit framework here, but here’s how it works:
- If the local area was told to submit a written statement of action, Ofsted & CQC inspectors will re-visit it roughly 21 months after the date on the original inspection outcome letter.
- The re-visit isn’t a full re-inspection – it focuses on the areas of serious weakness identified in the first inspection. If fresh horrors emerge during the re-visit, they’ll be noted down for investigation the next time a full inspection happens.
- The re-visit is carried out by one of Ofsted’s Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) and a CQC inspector – if possible, these will be the same people who carried out the original inspections.
- Local areas get 10 working days’ notice of the re-visit – a week longer than they got for the inspections. That’s less time for local area turd-polishing than you might think – during this time, the local area has to keep the inspection team fed with data showing what they’ve done to improve since the inspection.
- The re-visit itself is 2-4 days long, depending on how much the local area was originally told it needed to do to make its services fit for purpose. Most of that time is spent gathering evidence to check that the local area has actually taken effective action to remedy the serious weakness identified in the original inspection.
- During the re-visit, inspectors meet with children and young people, as well as parents and carers. They might venture out on visits, or they might not – it depends on the original areas of serious weakness.
- Once the 2-4 days are over, inspectors start firming up their judgements. For each of the areas of serious weakness, they’ll make a call on whether the local area has done enough to address them. The inspectors then draft a summary re-visit letter, put it through quality control, and it then gets published on the Ofsted website roughly 6-7 weeks after the re-visit.
- The re-visit letter says upfront whether the local area has done enough to address each area of serious weakness. If new concerns get thrown up as a result of the re-visit, they’ll get mentioned in the letter too.
So how do parents fit into this? If you’re a parent or carer, there are several ways you can get involved: a meeting organised with the parent carer forum (PCF), an open meeting, and an online survey that opens a week before the re-visit. This looks similar to the process used for the full-fat inspections – it’s somewhat creaky, and parents need to be alert to get involved.
Also, bear in mind that inspectors will be mostly focusing on the weaknesses that they identified first time round. If you’ve got fresh evidence showing other parts of the local area’s SEND service running smoothly or diabolically, then inspectors will take it on board – but they’re unlikely to take immediate action on it.
Re-Visits: The Story So Far
It’s still early days for these re-visits – as far as we can tell, there have been four to date (Rochdale, Hartlepool, Suffolk and Dorset) and two more are happening this week (Sandwell and Surrey).
Rochdale was the first local area re-visited. Inspectors gave the local area a generally clean bill of health, reporting that Rochdale had made sufficient progress across their four areas of serious weakness; they recommended that Rochdale no longer needed regular monitoring visits to keep them on track.
Things aren’t so rosy-looking in Suffolk. Inspectors re-visited in January, examining four specific areas of serious weakness. They found that Suffolk had made sufficient progress on one of the four areas, but reported that Suffolk hadn’t made sufficient progress across three of them: too many EHCPs were still weak, the local offer and CAMHS mental health service were still in disarray, and efforts to improve joint working were still underdeveloped.
From the report, it looks like evidence from Suffolk parents was taken seriously: over 700 parents and carers provided evidence via an online survey and through SPCN, Suffolk’s formidable parent carer forum.
Last week, Ofsted & CQC reported on their January re-visit to Hartlepool, with a similar story – some progress made, but the quality of Hartlepool EHCPs remained too variable, and joint commissioning of education and health remained too weak.
What happens next?
So what happens if a local area ‘fails’ one of these re-visits? We don’t know – but the little we do know makes us uneasy.
At this point, there’s no road-map. The only thing that’s clear is that the accountability ball gets passed back to central government. The Department for Education and NHS England decide what happens next. The inspectors trudge off stage-left, only to reappear if Whitehall summons them back again.
In theory, the Department for Education could use Ministerial powers of intervention to impose a new setup via statutory direction. They could issue a non-statutory improvement notice, beefing up the DfE’s existing monitoring and oversight arrangements. Or, of course, they could do nothing of consequence.
And at this point, there’s a real risk that the accountability process will move behind closed doors in Whitehall, with parents and local front-line professionals shut out.
Suffolk local area SEND leaders have already been summoned to a meeting with DfE and NHS England personnel to discuss next steps. Suffolk parents asked to attend this meeting. They’ve been shut out – they’re not even allowed to attend the meeting as observers, let alone as full participants.
The determination of Whitehall civil servants to shut parents out of this critical process tells you a great deal about their real commitment to co-production. Co-production is something other people should do, must do. Ministers, civil servants, and consultants give fine speeches about it. But it’s not for them. It’s for the little people.
Somewhere, hidden in the wings of this two-year bureaucratic clown show, there are children and young people with SEND who need proper provision, and they need it now. And they need the full participation of parents and carers in the process of making things better.
Does any of this make a difference?
We call this site Special Needs Jungle for a reason, and this is a part of the SEND jungle that’s particularly dense and impenetrable. Understanding this part of the jungle matters. People in positions of power and influence are making important decisions off the back of what these inspections reveal or fail to reveal.
And after a frustratingly complacent and inconsistent first year, many of these inspections are now unearthing hard truth about how SEND services work at local area level. The process is now overseen by specialist inspectors who genuinely ‘get it’. But this is a problem that boils down to a simple question – will these inspections actually improve things for children and young people with SEND?
The answer’s mixed. The local area SEND inspections often focus on strategy and process flow, and sometimes that makes improvements hard to see at an individual level – particularly those that are happening slowly behind the scenes. But there’s a limit to what these inspections can achieve.
Inspectors aren’t regulators – they’re there to see how effectively local areas are implementing the SEND reforms. They don’t have a direct remit to hold your local area to account for its failure to act lawfully.
Unbelievably, four-and-a-half years after the SEND reforms began, with evidence of failure now visible from space, with serial unlawful behaviour stretching back decades, this sector still has no regulator.These inspections aren’t a fix for that. Parents are still going to need to rely on the SENDIST Tribunal, the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman, and even judicial review to secure their children’s educational rights.
These inspections also don’t touch SEND funding, which is in national meltdown. The Suffolk re-visit failed to report on the near-total breakdown of mainstream high-needs SEND funding arrangements in the local area, caused by a mixture of national shortage and local incompetence.
And ultimately, inspections also don’t happen frequently enough to embed changes in local area organisational behaviour – which is still shocking in many local areas lucky enough to be in the first wave of complacent inspections. Talk to families in places like Derbyshire, East Sussex, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire & Trafford – who all ‘passed’ in 2016 and 2017 – and you’ll hear cases of appallingly unlawful behaviour. These local areas won’t be reinspected for at least two, possibly three years. No real improvement’s likely there for years.
These inspections are now a lot better than nothing – but inspectors are working within the limits of the powers they have. And for the worst areas, the ultimate power to drive improvement lies with the Department for Education and NHS England – and they don’t appear to want parents and carers involved.
As appalling as it is, it’s still up to parents to make SEND accountability happen.
Who’s next for a re-visit?
- Waltham Forest – Date confirmed: March 2019
- Date not confirmed: Sefton; Middlesbrough; Brent; Bury; Wakefield