Joint area SEND inspections will not resume in the autumn term, Ofsted has announced.
But the watchdog and the Care Quality Commission will conduct “a series of visits” to council areas to understand the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and support local areas to “respond effectively”.
The inspectorate will also produce a new area SEND inspection framework, it has been revealed, amid concerns the current set-up focuses too much on the implementation of the government’s 2014 reforms, rather than the impact of provision on children’s lives.
Like school inspections, joint local area SEND inspections have been suspended during the pandemic.
Ofsted and the CQC normally inspect local authority SEND provision together, and produce reports on their findings.
In commentary published today, Amanda Spielman, the Ofsted chief inspector, said disruption to education, health and care services and changing expectations of local areas during the pandemic “would make it impossible for us and CQC to make fair, valid and consistent inspection judgments”.
“We therefore think it is right that we do not return to area SEND inspections in the autumn, but instead focus on other ways we can help and support local areas to strengthen the SEND system in future.”
The two bodies will therefore be conducting visits to “understand children and young people’s experience and learn from what has worked well for them in this time” and “support local areas to prioritise and meet the needs of children and young people with SEND in the context of the pandemic”.
The visits will also “enable learning for all local areas, government and stakeholders on how best to strengthen the SEND system in future through a series of national reports”, and “will give us an insight into how well the system is working and allow us to see the point at which local areas will be ready for us to re-start full inspections”.
“We will use the expertise of our inspectors to help local areas get to that point in a strategic, supportive and evidence-based way,” Spielman added.
Ofsted and the CQC will not give a formal judgment or publish reports on individual areas, instead publishing “insights from these visits, alongside good practice and case studies, in national reports”.
“This will help to strengthen the whole SEND system in a positive way,” Spielman said, adding that the two bodies plan to return to full area SEND inspections “as soon as it is right to do so”.
SEND system was ‘struggling before the pandemic’
Joint inspections of local SEND services have revealed widespread failings since they started in 2016.
In February, a Schools Week investigation revealed that the number of town halls given a second warning by inspectors over failing SEND services had almost doubled in less than six months.
In her commentary, Spielman pointed to a “number of recurring weaknesses across local areas in England” that were identified before the pandemic hit.
“These included flaws, inconsistencies and delays in the identification of children and young people’s needs” and “not enough of a system-wide focus on providing high-quality universal education, health and care services”.
There was also a “lack of clarity about who is responsible for what between organisations, resulting in fractures in the way professionals in these services work together”.
“Area arrangements for identifying, assessing and meeting children and young people’s education, health and care needs were frequently slow. They felt like a ‘battle’ for families as their concerns escalated. Too often, families were left feeling dissatisfied with their experience of area SEND arrangements because the quality of services and support failed to live up to what was envisaged in their children’s EHC plans.”
New inspection programme and framework planned
Spielman said the government had commissioned Ofsted and the CQC to “develop a new area SEND inspection framework, to launch after the existing cycle has been completed”.
It comes as she admitted there were “limitations” to the current inspections, including that the one-off nature of the inspection cycle “can encourage providers and areas to go for a short-term approach to improvement that fails to address the underlying issues in enough depth”.
“We have focused too much on the implementation of the government’s 2014 SEND reforms and too little on the quality and impact of provision on children and young people’s lives,” she said.
The new framework will involve a continuous cycle of inspections, focused “more sharply on the experience of children and young people with SEND and their families”.
An evaluation of the framework, also published today by Ofsted, added: “Finding space in the framework for case tracking or thematic deep dives would give richer insight into the lived experiences of children and young people.”
The new inspections will also feature more prominently the “quality, integration and commissioning of education, health and care services for children and young people with SEND”.
The evaluation report also stated parents of SEND children may benefit from language in inspection outcome letters being “more accessible” and by “casting the document as a report… rather than a letter”.
The evaluation also revealed areas believed they were being “held to account” for practices they had no “practical influence over” such as off-rolling in schools.