“Inconsistent” outcomes, and long waits for services for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have been criticised in the first inspections published under Ofsted’s new framework.
The watchdog has published reports following joint area SEND inspections in Cornwall and Warrington in February this year. The new regime, carried out with the Care Quality Commission, came into effect in January.
Council areas are now given one of three ratings. Cornwall and Warrington achieved a middle rating. It means inspectors found their arrangements “lead to inconsistent experiences and outcomes”.
Each will face another full inspection in around three years.
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.
Reports highlight EHCP delays
In Cornwall, inspectors found the experiences of school-age children with SEND were “not consistently positive”, sometimes due to a “lack of clear information” about services.
Unlike services for younger and older pupils, those for five to 16-year-olds “do not consistently meet children and young people’s needs in a timely way”.
Some common themes emerged across both inspection reports, particularly in relation to delays in accessing services and assessments.
Although many children in Cornwall had their initial needs assessed “in a timely way”, delays in the annual review process for education, health and care plans (EHCPs) were “too frequent”.
This “results in plans not fully reflecting the changing needs of children and young people”. Leaders are “improving oversight in this area, but this needs accelerating”.
The High Court ruled last year that children with special needs should not have to wait more than three months for changes to their care plans.
Some children don’t get support when most needed
Waiting times to access mental health services have been “reduced significantly”, though some children “still wait too long for speech and language therapy”.
But progress in reducing waiting times for neuro-development assessment has “not been successful”.
This means “some children and young people are not able to access support when they most need it”.
Children waiting for a specialist placement are “not in education that best meets their needs and are not receiving the specialist help they need”.
The report also found planning for children with more complex needs was “not consistent”.
“As a result, some children and young people with complex needs do not get the right support at the right time.”
Kate Evan-Hughes, the council’s service director for education and community health, said she was “pleased that the inspectors recognised the strong partnership working” in the region.
However, she said the council “recognise that there is always more that can be done to ensure the quality of service is consistent across all areas and ages”. Improvements are underway.
‘Children wait too long for health services’
In Warrington, inspectors found some children and young people “wait too long to be assessed for health services”.
This included assessments from the speech, language and communication therapy service, mental health services and the neurodevelopmental pathway.
A Schools Week investigation revealed last year how thousands of children across the country are stuck on waiting lists for expert mental health help.
Warrington’s leaders have introduced “support and guidance” while children wait for services, but “some needs escalate” continue to wait for help.
The increased demand of EHCP assessments “outstrips some services, such as the educational psychology services’ capacity to complete their reports in a timely manner”.
These impacts “negatively” on the number of EHCPs completed within 20-weeks, meaning children’s needs are not met “quickly enough”.
‘Backlog’ of annual reviews
Government research in 2019 found more than 90 per cent of local authority principal educational psychologists experienced more demand for their services than they are currently able to meet.
Inspectors also found a backlog of annual reviews, though the area “has plans in place to complete all outstanding annual reviews by the end of the academic year”.
“However, this means that these EHC plans do not recognise children’s and young people’s changing needs.”
Leaders are “aware of the future demands on their services” but they “have not secured sufficient resources, particularly workforce and educational places, to meet the current and future increase in demands across services”.
Sarah Hall, Warrington’s cabinet member for children’s services, said the report highlighted “some of the good work our local area partnership is doing to make a difference to the lives of children and young people with SEND”.
But she said they would “also fully take on board the areas of improvement highlighted in the report”.