Lessons from SEND inspections

Lack of child focus and insufficient social care involvement highlighted by evaluation of area reports

From the autumn, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) plan to begin visiting local areas to assess how special educational needs and disability (SEND) services are functioning in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The visits – not inspections, which have been suspended since March when the lockdown was imposed – will be made to a sample of local areas to help improve their SEND systems following the disruption caused by the virus. Ofsted says it will be a collaboration with local areas to “understand the experiences of children and young people with SEND and their families during the pandemic, and support local areas to meet their needs”.

There will be no inspection judgments, nor reports published, although findings will be collated in a national report that includes case studies and examples of good practice.

There is no date set for the current round of inspections to restart – when visits were suspended, 117 out of 152 areas had been inspected since 2016. Of these, 60 were deemed to have services of such poor quality that the CQC and Ofsted instructed system leaders across health, education and social care to publish a written statement of action on improvements that would be made.

An evaluation by Ofsted and the CQC has highlighted common factors behind the problems in some areas – as well as identifying good practice in others. Issues include flaws, inconsistencies and delays in the identification of children’s needs; not enough of a system-wide focus on providing high-quality universal services; and lack of clarity over which organisations are responsible for what.

In a blog about the evaluation, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman says “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”.

Raising the profile of SEND

On the plus side, the evaluation finds area leaders and professionals credit inspections for raising the profile and priority of SEND, which helped with strategic planning.

Writing on the Special Needs Jungle website, founder Tania Tirraoro says: “In the world of SEND where external accountability barely exists, these inspections have prodded officials with power, influence and responsibility to start paying more attention to SEND, and they’ve made it far more difficult for the same people to deny that deep-rooted problems exist.”

Leaders also thought the joint nature of inspections had reinforced collective responsibilities. “We heard that inspections had a pronounced impact in this respect in areas where the partnership had previously not been strong,” the report states.

The evaluation also highlights problems with the inspection framework and process.

A common theme throughout the report is the lack of focus on social care, with leaders pointing out that this meant one of the main partners was neither able to articulate their contribution nor be held to account. The report notes this could be resolved through the inclusion of a children’s social care inspector in the visiting team.

There was also recognition that areas 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’s lives.

In addition, 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.

“The evaluation clearly points to why a continuing cycle of inspections is needed, with some areas that needed a revisit showing too little improvement. In other instances, improvements were knee-jerk,” writes Tirraoro.

The government has confirmed there will be a second round of area inspections, and Spielman says the framework will be updated to address issues highlighted in the evaluation, including introducing a continuous cycle of inspections and focusing more on the experiences of children and families (see box).


Dame Christine Lenehan, director of the Council for Disabled Children

We need an inspection regime that looks at what are the best outcomes for children and what the levers are to make that happen.

The written statements of action are a pass or fail system which isn’t always helpful. There are 60 local areas that have had to write statements; they have all been tarred with the same brush when you have a small proportion that need to make significant improvements. I’m not sure about a rating system – we want inspections that help areas to improve, not hit them on the head.

Social care needs to be more integrated into the framework. Nine out of 10 areas have a designated medical officer. They have been a lynchpin in driving health involvement. We need to look at whether that role should exist in social care.


Steve Crocker, chair, ADCS standards, performance and inspection committee

Capturing lessons from this period will be important in terms of sharing evidence of promising responses developed locally and informing longer term reforms via the ongoing SEND review. These new visits by Ofsted and CQC will contribute to these aims.

The outcome of this exercise, the recent evaluation of the current SEND visits and the common themes in the written statements of action should feed into the development of the next framework for local SEND inspections.

Any future framework to measure how effectively areas are fulfilling their joint responsibilities to children and young people with SEND needs to define what good looks like to facilitate the spread of good practice. Our collective focus must be on improving the experiences and outcomes of all children and young people with SEND, and ensuring no child is left behind.

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