Inspections of local SEND services carried out by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) are an important way of seeing how well every local area in England supports children and young people with SEND.

These inspections were introduced in 2016 to look at how effectively each local area identifies and meets children and young people’s needs and improves their outcomes. The aim was to see how well the SEND reforms introduced in 2014 were being implemented, and whether local authorities and other organisations were doing what they should.

The original plan was to inspect each local area once over a five-year period. But inspectors found so many serious weaknesses in provision for children and young people with SEND, the inspection programme is now being made permanent. Every local authority, and the organisations they work with, is to be inspected on a regular basis to see how well they are delivering what children and young people need.

Focusing on the impact on children and young people’s lives

Ofsted and CQC have published details of how they plan to do this in future. They invited people’s views on this, and IPSEA sent in a response. They say they want to “focus more on the impact [of local SEND provision] on the lives of children and young people with SEND”, rather than “simply” on whether local authorities and other organisations are meeting their legal responsibilities.

But focusing on children and young people’s lives and experiences should not mean overlooking whether local authorities are complying with the law on SEND provision and support. We said in our response that the current approach to inspection has not so far taken a particularly rigorous approach to monitoring local areas’ compliance with the law. (This was confirmed by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission themselves when they told the House of Commons Education Committee on 24 April 2019 that it was not in their remit to report on compliance with the law on SEND.) We said that not only should inspectors not lose focus on the law, they should pay it more attention than has been the case up to this point.

One of the main reasons the SEND system currently fails so many children and young people across the country is because there is persistent unlawful decision-making in local areas, with no negative consequences for local decision-makers – the only negative consequences for children and young people with SEND. The local area SEND inspection framework has a very important role to play in holding local areas to account.

Hearing from children and young people and their families

Ofsted and CQC say they want to hear more directly from children and young people with SEND and their families. While we agree this is important, experiences and anecdotes should not take the place of a robust assessment of local areas’ compliance with the SEND legal framework.

Young people and families may feel they have had a good experience, but may nonetheless be unaware of all their rights and entitlements. We know from our advice services and the training courses we provide that families often do not know what they should be able to expect from local SEND services, and as a result children and young people miss out on vital provision and support.

Making sure that inspection leads to improvement for children and young people

There are proposals in the new inspection framework to create three separate inspection outcomes for local areas, with more frequent inspections for areas that have poor outcomes. There will be clear recommendations on what a local area needs to do to improve services for children and young people, rather than just a summary of weaknesses as at present. In addition, every local area will have to publish a “strategic plan” for SEND after they have been inspected.

We support these proposals and agree they have the potential to improve transparency and accountability in the SEND system – as long as they result in more children and young people receiving the provision and support to which the law clearly entitles them.