SEND: Ofsted report tackles co-production, SENCOs, and EHCP delays

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The vital role of effective parental co-production, SENCOs under pressure, and the on-going bureaucracy and delays of the EHCP system are three key takeaways from Ofsted’s snapshot report into SEN provision. Pete Henshaw takes a look


Co-production with parents and carers and ensuring SENCOs have enough time to carry out their role are two keys to effective SEN provision in schools, Ofsted has said.

However, the system continues to experience huge delays to the assessment and allocation of Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCPs), with “high levels of bureaucracy” still an issue.

The findings are detailed within a small-scale, case study report published by Ofsted and based on the experiences of 21 children and young people with SEN attending schools in two local authorities (2021).

The research, which was carried out pre-pandemic, identifies good practice but also echoes many well-known problems and bottlenecks within the current system of SEN identification and provision.


Co-production with parents

A key finding is the impact that effective working relationships with families can have for students with SEN. The report praises some schools’ “positive and trusting relationships” with families, which ensured schools had access to crucial information to accurately identify needs.

The report states: “Some schools used a range of formal and informal communication channels to encourage families to share information. Parents and carers in these schools felt well-supported by individual members of staff, such as the SENCO or a class teacher, and were more likely to be confident about the school’s broader approach to inclusion.”

However, inspectors warn that while mechanisms for co-production were often in place, their implementation was “not always meaningful”.

“(Some parents) felt that they were not given sufficient information about their child’s learning and development. Some were not given opportunities to input into support plans by, for example, expressing opinions on targets or provision plans. In some cases, pupils did not have written support plans at all. This meant that the graduated approach was not in place and, crucially, that parents and carers were not given the opportunity to co-produce support plans.”


SENCOs

The report identifies the SENCO as crucial and yet finds evidence that some schools are not prioritising this role.

It states: “SENCOs fulfilled a crucial intermediary role between external agencies, schools and families. Strong and trusting relationships between SENCOs, parents and carers facilitated this. However, some SENCOs felt that they did not have enough time to carry out their responsibilities and access CPD.”

Some of the SENCOs in the report were fulfilling the role alongside full-time teaching duties: “This indicates that for some schools, the role of the SENCo was not strongly prioritised.”

SENCOs in the study were also frustrated and constrained because of the on-going significant delays to the EHCP process.


EHCPs: Delays continue

The report, like many before it, warns that schools and families face “long waiting times and high levels of bureaucracy with the EHCP process”.

Inspectors warn that pupils with SEND “lose too much time in appropriately planned education when there are long delays in accurately identifying needs”.

The problems are well documented. In 2019, an inquiry by the cross-party Education Select Committee into the overhaul of the SEND system warned that families face a “titanic struggle” to get the right support for their children and were being left exhausted by an “adversarial and bureaucratic” system (see SecEd, 2019).

MPs on the Select Committee found that at school level, children on SEN Support in particular are being let down and their needs going unmet. As such, desperate families are applying for EHCPs, leading to huge pressure on the system.

In its report, Ofsted says that problems with the EHCP process were also leading to disadvantaged children losing out as richer families simply commissioned services themselves: “In some instances, families were commissioning or paying for additional services themselves. This suggests that the playing field is not level for pupils from poorer backgrounds.”

The report continues: “Some participants experienced delays with EHCP assessments, describing high levels of bureaucracy within the assessment process. This was another area of frustration for schools and families.

“A headteacher from (one) school said they had waited 60 months for one pupil’s EHCP to progress from assessment to ‘getting the plan approved’. This was apparently due to staffing issues in the local authority.”

It comes as new Department for Education figures (DfE, 2021) also confirmed the on-going significant delays in the issuing of EHCPs.

There are now a total of 430,697 children and young people with EHCPs as of January 2021 – a 10 per cent increase since January 2020. Of these, 71.6 per cent are educated in mainstream schools.

However, of these only 58 per cent were issued within the statutory 20-week waiting time period (compared to 60.4 per cent in 2019).


Slipping through the net?

While there are now 430,697 children on EHCPs, there are 1.4 million with SEN – and many can go under the radar.

Ofsted’s study confirms that some pupils without an EHCP missed out: “Pupils who were receiving SEND support but did not have an EHCP were less likely to have their needs identified accurately. This may be because pupils with an EHCP have a multi-professional assessment of need, while those without EHCPs typically have their needs identified and assessed at school-level.

“For some pupils, this meant that staff did not always seem certain of the nature of their SEND, possibly due to a lack of specialist SEND knowledge.”

The report also highlights the challenge of pupils who adopt coping strategies that “could potentially mask needs, making clear and timely identification harder”.

It adds: “These examples suggest a need for CPD for SEND and greater access to staff or practitioners with specialist SEND expertise.”


Teaching assistants

Ofsted’s report finds that almost all of the 21 pupils had teaching assistants allocated to them to support in the classroom. However, “very often” they were taken out for intervention activities, which alarmed inspectors.

“This meant that many pupils were spending some curriculum time with teaching assistants rather than teachers. This raises concerns about pupils with SEND having full access to the high-quality teaching that they need in order to have a chance of success.

“Time out of class for intervention activity meant that some pupils were not able to participate in some learning opportunities and some pupils were missing entire chunks of the curriculum. Not only does this imply that regular learning loss will occur in some areas for these pupils, but also that the curriculum that they are offered does not have the same ambition as for their peers.”

There is also a warning about ensuring pupils do not become over-reliant on their teaching assistant: “In a small number of cases, pupils had become over-reliant on their teaching assistants, potentially impacting on them being able to develop independence. Some parents and carers also raised some concerns around social exclusion due to the amount of time spent out of class in small-group or individual interventions. However, regardless of this, most parents and carers were generally very positive about the reassurance and facilitation of learning provided by teaching assistants.”


SEN system review

Before the pandemic, the Department for Education pledged to carry out a review of the SEN system – it was first announced in September 2019 – but this has been delayed due to Covid-19. In September, education secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs on the Education Select Committee that the review would not be published until “the early part of 2021”. It is now expected later this year.


Commentary

Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for education, said that high-quality education for children with SEND must be underpinned by “a good understanding of their individual needs, and strong relationships between families and schools”.

He added: “Effective joint work between schools and other services, especially including health, is also critical to children’s learning and development.”

Commenting on the report Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the issues were already well-known and stem from a number of problems.

He explained: “One, support for children with SEN is critically underfunded; two, the system for delivering that funding is byzantine in its complexity; and, three, the process for obtaining the highest level of support through EHCPs is incredibly time-consuming and bureaucratic.

“The result is that schools are straining every sinew to provide support for young people with SEN –­ without adequate resources – but there are undoubted problems in delivering the support these children need.

“The government does recognise that there are serious issues and is planning a review of the system but this has been delayed by the pandemic. It clearly needs to tackle this issue urgently.”


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