Three more areas in England have been slammed by inspectors for “widespread, systemic failings” in special educational needs (SEND) services.
Oxfordshire, Oldham and Plymouth must make urgent improvements after receiving the lowest rating in inspections by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission this summer. All had reports published in the past month.
It means one in four areas visited under the new area SEND inspection framework so far have “widespread and/or systematic failures leading to significant concerns about the experiences and outcomes” of children with extra needs.
In Oxfordshire, “far too many children and young people are lost in the system”, amid “lengthy waiting times” for help with many not receiving help “until they are close to crisis point”.
A “tangible sense of helplessness” runs through parents’ descriptions of their lived experiences, the report reads.
Inspectors found when families and professionals “face an absence of early intervention, some feel the only way to get help is to secure support through an education, health and care plan (EHCP)”. But these plans “frequently” do not describe the child “accurately enough”.
In schools, staff are “not always well supported” to understand and meet needs amid a shortage of specialist and alternative provision (AP) places. Some children “wait years” for specialist provision.
Despite a commitment to inclusion, “some school leaders are unable to meet pupils’ increasingly varied needs”.
“This is due to a lack of suitable advice, guidance and support from specialists. Consequently, many school leaders and staff feel overwhelmed because they cannot support children and young people as well as they aspire to.”
There is sometimes a “breakdown of placements” leading to children “spending too much time out of school”. There has also been “little strategic oversight” of AP.
SEND needs get greater while children wait for help
Ofsted did find that recently appointed area leaders “recognise the significant weaknesses of the current system”.
Stephen Chandler, an interim director at Oxfordshire County Council, said: “I am so sorry we have let families down.”
The council “unequivocally accept the findings” and will develop a “joint action plan” with families.
In Oldham, pupils face “unacceptable delays” in having their speech and language needs identified. Some children with complex SEND in nursery do not have these needs assessed “until the middle of their primary school education”.
More than half of pupils admitted to the council’s referral unit in key stage 3 require an EHCP on arrival “because their needs have not been identified early enough”.
In a statement, the council and NHS authorities said they will urgently improve delays in gaps in access to health services. Oldham is also on the government’s pilot project to test the government’s key SEND reforms.
In Plymouth, children “get ‘stuck’ in the system” and their needs get greater while waiting for help.
Wait times for autism assessments, and speech and language therapy “exceed national guidelines”. Leaders from health, social care and education “are not working together well enough”.
Too many secondary school pupils with SEND “do not get the necessary help to succeed” and are more likely to have poor attendance than other similar pupils nationwide. There are “particularly high” incidents of suspensions and part-time timetables for pupils with SEND.
Fourth council given lowest rating
Leaders and practitioners “do not have a shared understanding” of EHCPs, which are sometimes “seen as forms to be completed to access additional funding or specialist placement”.
Many pupils arrive at AP with unidentified SEND and stay in the provision “too long. This ‘blocks’ places and reduces the capacity to offer support to others who need it.”
Councillor Sally Cresswell, Plymouth’s education cabinet member, said “increasing demand” for SEND services has caused “additional pressure on all the organisations involved… [we] will work together at pace to address this as well as the priorities highlighted in the inspection.”
The councils must submit a priority action plan to inspectors and have a monitoring inspection within the next 18 months.
A fourth council, Nottinghamshire, was given the lowest rating. A May report found some children in mainstream schools with SEND “do not receive advice to prepare for moving to their next stages of education”.
A further six areas must also make improvements as inspectors deemed their work led “to inconsistent experiences”.
Five of the 15 inspected had the top rating, which “typically lead to positive experiences”.
More than two thirds of councils inspected under the old framework in 2021–22 had “significant weaknesses” – the worst record since the watchdog started visits six years ago.
Ministers’ SEND and AP reforms include earlier identification and more inclusion in mainstream schools, meaning fewer pupils will need support through an EHCP. But changes will not be rolled out nationwide until, potentially, 2026.
Thirty-one councils will pilot key reforms, such as national standards, through a £70 million change programme.