The Ofsted Visit: A Personal Reflection

The Ofsted visit: a personal reflection

This personal response to the recent Ofsted visit comes from Pippa Hodge, PaCC Rep for Home to School Transport, and is a 5 minute read:

Hello, I’m Pippa Hodge, and some of you will know me as I’m the PaCC Rep for Home to School Transport. I’m also the Chair of the community group “T21 Brighton & Hove” for local parents and carers who have a child or young person with Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome). T21 is a PaCC Partner Group. I have been reflecting on the recent Ofsted visit from my position of being a community group leader, as well as a member of the PaCC who was involved, and of course, a proud parent carer living with my three children here in Brighton & Hove. My son’s diagnoses and extensive educational and health/medical needs, means that I am (gratefully) linked into a number of the city’s SEND support communities. It’s a ‘long read’ but I hope it will be thought provoking and perhaps helpful for some people to find out a little more about co-production, in light of the recent Inspection.

Our everyday extraordinary lives

We are living in tumultuous times in the SEND Community. While COVID may have been ‘stepped down’ there are a great many families in the city still experiencing the after storm of an unprecedented two years of enormous upheaval to family life. Life certainly changed for me and my teenagers. Within the general state of crisis, families in our community were severely affected, since it exposed the gaps that we have all been battling to plug for years. We have to balance our work/wellbeing/family/parent carer roles, in what feels like the never ending ‘SENDathlon’ of trying to access the support across nursery/school/college, physical/mental health and social care (respite) that our children & young people so desperately need. And we’re doing this in a climate of rapid inflation and soaring costs for food and basic utilities, fuel, rent, etc. It’s no exaggeration to say that the last two years have been a tipping point to community ‘burnout’.

Here in our city,  the number of children and young people with an Education, Health & Care Plan (EHCP) has almost doubled since 2015 and Amaze’s SENDIASS (Support Service) reported 4586 referrals over the last year. That’s a 21% increase in enquiries from parents and carers in the city, relating to education and health. Our Community and Voluntary Sector organisations work tirelessly trying to shore up and keep our community afloat. 3.6% of the city’s children and young people aged 0-25 have an EHCP and many more are on SEN support. If you want to know more about our Brighton & Hove SEND statistics, and the SEND Strategy, you can read more here,

And then just before the Easter holidays, the Ofsted/CQC Inspectors arrived.

A three-week inspection of the Local Area Partnership

This was a joint inspection of the departments across the council and NHS Integrated Care Board and their joint working, spanning Education, Health and Care (it didn’t involve an individual inspection of schools, those take place individually). Inspectors also looked at the co-production arrangements with PaCC (although PaCC weren’t being inspected as a service as it’s not part of the council). Parents and carers and their children and young people were invited to give their views via a survey which was open for six working days – a very brief ‘window’ for exhausted, busy families. Nevertheless a great many of us took the time to complete the survey, and additionally some of the city’s individual support groups also conducted their own surveys and fed their findings in, all of which were forwarded to the inspectors. It is important to acknowledge how draining it is for us to be continually asked to give feedback, on top of all the other SEND and life admin, especially when it may feel that we are raising the same concerns repeatedly. Diagnosis: ‘Survey Overload with Broken Record Syndrome?’.

In addition to the surveys, inspectors conducted  ‘in depth’ interviews with selected parent carers, as the inspectors chose their child or young person to be one of six case studies. Thank you to those parent carers and their children who took part and gave your precious time and energy to share your personal stories fully.

A small working group from PaCC was invited to meet with the inspectors. I was one of three longstanding PaCC Steering Group members who took part in a 1.5 hour meeting on 23 March, along with PaCC Chair, Becky Robinson. The discussion was led by inspectors asking specific questions around areas they wanted to know more about, rather than PaCC being able to deliver the presentation which had been painstakingly prepared to act as a springboard for detailed conversation. The report was instead sent on following the meeting, together with PaCC Partner Group Reports, but there was no further opportunity for PaCC to provide detailed evidence to inspectors.

A different inspection approach with less direct community engagement

Unlike the full Area SEND Inspections under the old framework, this new style inspection of partnerships didn’t provide any opportunity for PaCC Partner Groups or any other representative groups for SEND, nor individual parent carers across the city (other than the six case studies) to meet with inspectors. This was one of several aspects that PaCC has identified and criticised, regarding this new approach to Local Area Inspections. Brighton & Hove was only the eighth area to be inspected using this new format – and it fell short of being a robust, fully representative or compassionate approach. The whole focus of the inspection is to assess the partnership working between departments and services, their understanding of local SEND needs & the responsiveness of improvement plans. Inspectors would have been able to much more robustly assess the ‘proof’ if they’d met with SEND support groups and parent carers to learn about our experiences of trying to access or receiving these services. PaCC’s view is that this inspection approach doesn’t meet the mark, and it doesn’t demonstrate how the responses to the survey and other key documents and reports provided have been taken into consideration during the inspection.

To reflect the frustrations with the process, PaCC has prepared a separate report to share with members, and the city’s support communities, Ofsted, the CQC and the National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF – which is the oversight body for parent carer forums nationally). This is to try to prevent other SEND Communities or PCFs having to experience an inspection like this, which felt extremely light on process, and heavy on stress, straining relationships at all levels, for the people involved. I would also like to thank Sally Polanski at Amaze for her support to PaCC Chair, Becky Robinson, during this challenging process. You can read PaCC’s full concerns about the inspection process here.

The final report is released (two months later)

This was a long wait. The final report was delayed by the ‘pause’ period in the run up to May’s local elections, as well as the internal auditing processes that have to take place. It was sent to the local authority in draft form for comment, prior to being published during half term, on 31 May 2023. PaCC was not given the opportunity to make comments on the draft, as inspectors did not permit PaCC to view it.

The report headline reads:

“The local area partnership’s arrangements typically lead to positive experiences and outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND). The local area partnership is taking action where improvements are needed.”

You can access the inspection report here.

The reaction from our city’s SEND community

Some of you will be really pleased to see positive praise of certain departments or services (e.g. BHISS) where your children have had positive experiences and you have written about that in the Ofsted survey. We know that there are examples of good partnership working within the larger piece, usually driven by passionate individuals within the system. (The upcoming PaCC Awards are an important recognition of individual professionals as well as people working in the voluntary sector, who make a really positive difference to our young people’s outcomes)

At the same time – and this is where there is real cause for concern –  a significant number of parent carers and young people across the city’s SEND communities feel that the inspection findings do not adequately reflect the experiences that they are having, nor does it fully acknowledge the detailed feedback/criticism that was submitted via the Ofsted survey portal or via community partner group submissions. Some of the city’s groups report a stark mismatch between their community experiences and the contents of the report.

This should be deeply concerning to the community and to professionals in the council and in health, as it leads to disenfranchisement, disbelief and division. This is compounded by the survey overload with ‘broken record syndrome’. The evidence is in PaCC Position Statements, as well as in the feedback from individual parent carer groups, over the last few years. While SEND Provision and recent initiatives such as the neurodevelopmental pathway, may be working well for some of our city’s children and young people, it’s accurate to say that there are many who have fallen through the net, unable to access help and support, or a suitable education, skills or work provision. This creates a whole family crisis. We must judge our city’s SEND services not just by where it’s working, but also by where it isn’t, and who it is failing, resulting in detrimental health, work and life outcomes.

A brief explanation of what co-production is/should be

I have frequently mentioned co-production, but what do I mean by this term?  I’d like to share a paragraph taken from the Local Government Association (LGA) website. The underline is my addition for emphasis.

The NEF* defines co-production as “delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours. Where activities are co-produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change“. 

Co-production is focused around a relationship in which professionals and citizens share power to plan and deliver support together, recognising that both partners have vital expertise. Overall, co-production is fundamentally about seeing people as assets: people are no longer passive recipients of services, but are equal partners in designing and delivering activities to improve outcomes.

(local.gov.uk/topics/devolution/devolution-online-hub/public-service-reform-tools/engaging-citizens-devolution-7#:~:text=Co-production%20is%20focused%20around,both%20partners%20have%20vital%20expertise.)

*NEF – New Economic Foundation. If you want to know more, read here.

In essence, this is the role of PaCC – to be agents for change and improvements to SEND and health services, and we aim to do that by co-producing with the local authority and health partners. Co-production is tricky – in reality, the partner scales are rarely balanced (to be clear, PaCC does not ‘co-hold’ the budget), and when either partner shares hard to hear news, it strains the partnership. I have already highlighted the burden of drawing on depleted parent carers and exhausted children and young people. I would also like to address the toll that the inspection took on the leads of the various parent carer community groups, and the PaCC Steering Group, notably the chair and nominated members who worked on the inspection. It is really frustrating to have such limited engagement with the inspectors, and to then read the final report and know that it is not a full reflection of the spectrum of the community’s personal experiences. It’s also important to recognise the additional work and strain that an inspection places on the professionals within the services,which takes them away from their desks, when there’s work that needs to be done.

Candour within a respectful partnership is key – and we will need to keep coming back to this as we move forward, within a SEND sector that has more children and young people in need of support than ever, and not enough budget. I know that co-production can be effective and transformative, but also that it isn’t consistent yet, across all workstreams/at all levels of delivering the services. The Ofsted inspection certainly strained the partnership and the coming months will be important to restore and improve our co-production work in practice.

So what happens afer the Ofsted inspection?

A SEND Department Restructure

One key change is already underway. On 20 April, the council announced the finalised restructure of its SEN Statutory Service, explaining the need to expand in order to meet the increased number of requests for

  • Education, Health and Care Needs Assessments (EHCNAs)
  • Education, Health and Care Plans (EHC plans)
  • Mediations & appeals
  • Requests for specialist provision placements.

The newly added Annual Review Officer and Quality Assurance Officer will certainly have plenty to get their teeth into. You can read their news here.

PaCC keeps working on projects within the SEND strategy

PaCC is already working with the council on a comprehensive review of the Short Breaks Service, which is one of the notable shortfall areas already identified. There is also increased focus on the neurodevelopmental pathway, here in Brighton & Hove and across Sussex, as the NHS has changed the way that health is delivered across regions. You may see these sorts of projects referred to as ‘workstreams’, and there are many, which we try to cover by allocating ‘PaCC Reps’ to each area.

Comparing the feedback to the findings

It’s frustrating that the feedback provided by families into the Ofsted/CQC inspection portal has effectively fallen into a ‘black hole’. This makes it difficult to challenge the inspectors’ report if we are unable to draw lines back to the data and themes emerging through the surveys. Ideally we would also be able to use this (anonymised) information that we all took time to provide, as a driver for change.

That said, between us, we already have an abundance of information and insight. We are all more than clear on our children and young people’s needs and what’s working, what’s not, what needs to change and which good practice needs to be shared to others, to improve consistency of services.

How can we move forward?

Bring council/health and the community together regularly

There is no substitute for hearing about our community’s experiences, so that managers and directors understand how their decisions impact our children and young people. This is the SEND Strategy in everyday life. PaCConnect events can be a useful tool for this.

Be seen

Difficult conversations can feel even harder when we don’t know who the person is on the other end of the letter, email, phone call. I strongly believe a more ‘in real life’ presence would be helpful. I definitely appreciate it when officers invest their time at a coffee morning or a PaCC event and are approachable.

More consistent co-production

We know that co-production can be fruitful and we can take examples where it’s working well and use it to help all partners understand what co-production looks like, feels like and how to ‘do it’ consistently and well.  Then it becomes a ‘positive habit’ and this is how to grow an effective co-production culture. It would also provide a way to benchmark how well it’s working and how it can be improved. This applies to partnerships across our community, between the council/health and PaCC and also between PaCC and Partner Groups and other groups that aren’t affiliated to PaCC. These conversations are already underway and I do hope that by working together, we are stronger (yes, I’ve managed to slip the PaCC motto in!).

Thank you for taking the time to read my ‘long read’ follow up to last week’s inspection update. There will be formal PaCC  updates over the coming weeks and months (don’t worry, they won’t be as long as this!), to report back on the co-production workstreams, and we welcome your feedback on what should happen next as well as your ongoing thoughts, which you can feed back via your PaCC Partner Group if you have one, or at one of the PaCC Partner coffee mornings, or straight to us by email at: admin@paccbrighton.org.uk 

We can all agree there is a lot of work that needs to be done, in order to get closer to our city’s values and the vision set out in the 2021-2026 SEND Strategy. I do believe that a robust co-production approach will take us closer to this goal:

“Our children and young people with special educational needs and adults with learning disabilities will achieve the very best they can so that they can lead happy, healthy and good lives.”

This Long Read was written by

Pippa Hodge, parent carer for Leo (14)

PaCC Steering Group Member & PaCC Rep for Home to School Transport

Chair T21 Brighton & Hove

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