Review by Frances Akinde

SEND advisor and neurodiversity champion

9 Dec 2023, 5:00

Blog

The Conversation – with Frances Akinde

A SEND-off to 2023

Last week, Spotify subscribers received their list of top podcasts, songs, artists, and genres for the past 12 months. The DfE’s social media team quickly jumped on the trend with their own version, sharing what they felt their top achievements for 2023 were using the hashtag #SpotifyWrapped. Note the absence of any mention of the SEND and AP improvement plan published in March.

My own top three podcasts are the Sleep Zone podcast, the SENDcast and Ofsted Talks. Ofsted’s has been going since 2021 and always makes for interesting listening. As a local authority inspector and adviser working in SEND, the SENDcast keeps me up to speed with all the big issues in the sector – of which there are many. And the Sleep Zone really helps me unwind and rest after a busy day visiting schools – of which there are also plenty.

Alternative inspections

December is also the time when Ofsted looks back on its findings from the past year in its annual report. This year’s – Amanda Spielman’s last before stepping down as Ofsted’s longest-serving chief inspector – seems to have come and gone with very little coverage despite some highly concerning facts about SEND and AP.

The Ofsted annual report states that we have seen a 19 per cent increase in children being educated in unregistered APs (up to 11,600). The problem was already bad enough for Ofsted to publish a blog about it in 2019, and to follow it up with one of its podcasts about it back in April 2022.

Now, as more and more children struggle in mainstream education, the number placed in independent and AP is set to grow faster than the state-funded sector. Yet Ofsted still has no power to investigate the quality of education in ‘illegal’ settings.

A growing concern

In another Ofsted blog this September, senior HMI for SEND and AP, Steve Shaw shared the organisation’s approach to inspecting the curriculum in alternative provision. He called for understanding that every AP setting is unique and therefore different approaches are used. This makes these provisions harder to inspect, particularly by inspectors with no experience leading APs. 

In the introduction to the annual report, Spielman calls for us to be optimistic. “Imbuing children with optimism […] is a worthwhile end in itself,” she says, but adds that “optimism must be tempered by realism”. She goes on to single out that “high demand for special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) and mental health services is particularly straining limited resources”.

Many alternative provisions cater for children excluded from schools. As absenteeism and exclusion rates rise (in tandem with the number of schools rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’), so is the number of AP placements, up 13 per cent from 59,900 at the beginning of 2022 to 67,600 at the beginning of 2023. A growing concern, not least because it appears Ofsted is not doing enough to stop the rise. 

A change of mood

Optimistic was how I felt when I put a call out for blog posts about the Ofsted report that I could use for this week’s column. The SEND and AP community is usually quick to respond and happy to share, but responses were few. That is very unusual in itself. The mood seems to have shifted as people tire of repeating the same things. 

Helpfully, former headteacher, John Cosgrove has used his blog to collate over 200 entries of evidence to the select committee inquiry into Ofsted’s work with schools that started in July 2023. A selection of these focus on inclusion and SEND, and surely provide the realism to temper any optimism within the inspectorate that 2024 will be an easier year for them.

I can highly recommend the Sleep Zone podcast to anyone there who might be losing sleep about that.

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