Launching her second annual report in London, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said that provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) was ‘too disjointed and inconsistent’.
Children with autism are waiting up to two years to be diagnosed, and the quality of Education Health and Care (EHC) plans was still too variable and weak, she said.
Between 2010 and 2017 the number of children with a plan designating their needs, but who received no provision, had increased fivefold.
It had been above 4,000 in 2017, but has now been reduced to 2,060.
Ms Spielman told the audience of education and social care professionals, local authority representatives and others, ‘Identification of SEND is often inaccurate or late, and the gap in outcomes for children with SEND is widening, which in turn places even greater strain on services.
‘Those who just fail to meet the threshold for a plan are too often dealt the worst hand, with a lack of proper support. As a result, parents feel that to do the best for their children they must go to extreme lengths to secure a plan – driving up the numbers of referrals, filling up waiting lists with some who won’t need a plan, and delays diagnosis further for those who do.
‘We know of cases of parents who actually welcome their child being permanently excluded as it will finally unlock the possibility of getting a plan. Something is deeply wrong when parents repeatedly tell inspectors that they have to fight to get the help and support that their child needs. And I’m not talking about middle class parents wanting extra time in exams for their child. I mean adequate support for our most vulnerable children with SEND, which is a basic expectation of a decent, developed society. We need to do better.’
During a question and answer session after the speech Sean Harford, national director, Education said that there was a ‘a great deal of parents’ anger’ around the problems with EHC plans and that one local authority had spent around £500,000 on tribunals to avoid giving provision.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said, ‘Amanda Spielman clearly identifies the problems faced by our schools but fails to identify the obvious solutions to these problems. Off-rolling, delayed identification and support for children with SEND, orphan schools left for over 18 months without a sponsor – all these are symptoms of an underlying problem which is that the school system in England is fragmented.
‘Schools are being left to "go it alone" without adequate oversight or support. Ofsted, quite rightly, abhors off-rolling, but refuses to admit its own role in creating an inspection system which has focused, above all, on data which has created the pressure on schools to off-role.’
Deborah Lawson, general secretary of Voice, the Union for Education Professionals, said, ‘I welcome the chief inspector’s highlighting of the crisis in special needs provision.
‘Schools across the country are under enormous financial pressure – as has been emphasised by the BBC’s School series – and dedicated staff are ‘working their socks off’, as the Chief Inspector put it, to support youngsters with special educational needs in the face of cuts and restructuring – which is resulting in cuts to critical staff, including teaching support assistants and behavioural support staff.
‘Ofsted deplores the delay in the identification and support of children with SEND but refuses to identify the decimation of local-authority funding which has led to the crisis in special needs which is so catastrophic for children and their parents.’
Jess Reeves, campaigns manager at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said Ofsted’s report was ‘a damning verdict’ on the system for supporting children with special needs.
‘Despite the Government’s repeated claims of record investment, families across the country find themselves in a constant battle to get the support they are entitled to from a system that is on its knees.
‘The Government must act now to provide the funding that these children so desperately need. Anything less, and we will have a generation of lost potential from a group of children with so much to give.’
The report finds that the early years sector remains strong, with 95 per cent of providers judged good or outstanding compared with 64 per cent six years ago.
Commenting, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘Crucially, the gap between settings is the most and least deprived areas is closing dramatically, with 91 per cent of providers in the poorest regions of the country now providing good or outstanding care. Given that it is those children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who have the most to gain from a quality early education, it's no exaggeration to say those childcare providers are setting them up for life.
‘As such, the report only serves to reinforce why it is so important for the Government to adequately invest in the early years sector.
‘Acknowledging the improving quality of childcare providers alone is not enough: if we recognise the importance of their role, then we should ensure they're supported to continue delivering it.’
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said, ‘It’s fitting that the chief inspector acknowledges the high quality of nurseries, with more (23 per cent) judged outstanding despite their financial challenges.
‘Research shows that children who attend high quality nurseries are more likely to arrive at school ready to learn, with flourishing numeracy, literacy and communication skills. Nurseries support children to learn social and independence skills such as going to the toilet, turn-taking and making friends.
‘We share Ofsted’s grave concerns about a lack of meaningful SEND provision. More children now attend nursery needing additional support, but local authority budget cuts mean most do not have sufficient resources to meet these children’s needs for their full 30-hour place. This must be addressed urgently.’
Liz Bayram, chief executive at PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years), said, ‘We've heard much to be welcomed in the Annual report. The draft EIF's focus on supporting early literacy and numeracy is core to a quality early education, so long as it's part of a well-rounded curriculum. We're celebrating that 95 per cent of providers are good or outstanding but PACEY is concerned we're at a crossroads.
‘There is increasing evidence that the number of well qualified practitioners is starting to decline, particular newer practitioners who can't afford to pay for qualifications and see no benefit in doing so, such as increased earnings and career progression.
‘Quality early education is dependent on a well-qualified workforce. Without improved funding for government funded early education and a workforce strategy that supports career progression, future generations of children will not benefit from the high quality of education and care our under- fives currently enjoy.’
A DfE spokesperson said, ‘This report shows that standards in our schools are rising with 86 per cent judged to be good or outstanding compared to only 66 per cent in 2010. It shows we have a robust education system – one where parents can feel assured that the vast majority of schools, early years providers, children’s homes and local authorities provide a high level of education and care for young people, regardless of their circumstances.
‘One of the key functions of a good regulator is that it highlights areas of concern and we will work with Ofsted, schools, local authorities and others to address the issues this report picks out.’
- Read our interview with Ofsted’s deputy early years director Gill Jones in Nursery World on Monday