The special educational needs and disability (SEND) system is “creaking and ripe for long-promised reform”, according to the annual report of the education watchdog Ofsted.
Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills, warned in her annual report on education and children’s care that many children who fell behind during the pandemic had been wrongly labelled with SEND, which was “not right for them”.
She said this has “put an unnecessary burden on the system”, which was already struggling with delays for assessments for disabled children and young people’s education, health and care plans (EHCPs).
These delays are a “persistent problem”, says her report, and are caused by “rising demand, staff absences and recruitment issues”.
In 2021, only 60 per cent of EHCPs were issued within the 20-week statutory limit, the same as in 2018 and 2019, while 20 local education authorities issued less than a third of plans within 20 weeks.
The report adds: “Even when children and young people have been able to access services, the service has often been interrupted or scaled back.”
But Disability Rights UK (DR UK) was critical of some of Ofsted’s conclusions.
Bethany Bale, DR UK’s policy and campaigns officer, said: “This isn’t about demand, this is about chronic under-funding, under-resourcing and a consistent failure nationally and locally to uphold legal obligations.
“Not only have we failed disabled young people for far too long, and continue to do so, but they continue to be the ones blamed for the fact they’re refused access to an education system built to exclude them.
“The SEND Review explained how outcomes for disabled people hadn’t improved, despite ‘unprecedented investment’.
“Now Ofsted claims that too many students are burdening an over-stretched system.
“If we are ever going to see an improvement in outcomes for disabled children, we must stop framing them as the problem to be fixed – and instead, focus on tackling the barriers placed upon them.
“No student should be framed as a ‘burden’ in a system that exists to ensure every child can reach their full potential – no matter the support or adjustments they may need to access that potential.”
The report also says that more than half (16 of 26) of SEND inspections of local areas carried out jointly by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission resulted in a finding that the local education, health and care bodies responsible should produce a joint statement of action because of “significant weaknesses”.
Ofsted said this was “extremely concerning”.
These inspections often found “inconsistencies” in the way that local areas identified the needs of disabled children and young people and in the joint working between education, health and care partners.
The quality of EHCPs was poor in many areas, and the plans “did not always reflect children and young people’s needs and aspirations”, while families in some areas did not know where to get help for their children and “felt that their views were not heard or valued”.
Many areas did not have an effective SEND strategy, the report says.
The Ofsted report also raises concerns about the large number of disabled children who attend unregistered “alternative provision” (AP) institutions – such as pupil referral units – after being excluded from mainstream schools.
This is “unsatisfactory and can even be dangerous”, says the report, and Ofsted said it would like to see compulsory registration for all alternative provision establishments.
The pandemic continued to affect the school absence rates of pupils with SEND, the report says, with about a third of pupils with EHCPs, and of those with SEN support, missing at least 10 per cent of sessions in autumn 2021, which was “substantially higher” than before the pandemic.
The report says that less than half of the independent specialist colleges that were inspected during the year were judged good or outstanding.
Ofsted also says there are “enormous issues” with the children’s homes market, with demand far outstripping supply in many areas and children being “let down by a system that is stretched too thinly”.
It says that children “with the most complex needs are often the least well served in already overstretched systems”, while homes that can take children with “acute mental health needs” are “in short supply”.
Spielman said: “The pandemic continued to cast a shadow over education and children’s social care for much of the past year.
“And the energy crisis and economic pressures have brought more turbulence in recent months.
“Across all age groups in education, careful thought has been given to making up lost learning.
“However, achievement gaps are still wider than before the pandemic, meaning the recovery is far from complete.
“And it’s clear that in education – and in children’s social care – staffing issues are compounding problems standing in the way of a full recovery.”
Picture: Amanda Spielman (left) and Bethany Bale
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