The requirements of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in Lancashire are a “golden thread” running through efforts to deliver the health and care services on which they and their families rely.
That was one of the conclusions of OFSTED inspectors who visited the county to assess its progress after a damning report by the regulator almost three years ago revealed that the needs of young people were not always being met and their parents and carers were left “bewildered” about decisions made on their behalf.
On a return trip to Lancashire shortly before lockdown, OFSTED found a “transformation which cannot be underestimated” in the ambition for SEND youngsters in the area.
However, in their report of the visit, published on Wednesday, they also judged that the county had made sufficient progress in only seven out of the 12 “significant weaknesses” identified in 2017 – and that services were still falling short in the remaining five areas.
While stressing that there was still “a huge amount of work to do”, inspectors praised efforts to improve engagement with parents and carers, who were previously described as having lost trust in social care and NHS organisations charged with supporting their children. Having had feedback from 550 families as part of their latest visit, the inspection team found that families now felt “valued and equal partners”.
Improvements were acknowledged in the quality of education, health and care plans (EHCP), which help determine the level of support required by individual children – and parental understanding of that process. Exclusions of SEND children from school were found to now be few and far between.
However, several areas of concern were also highlighted – including difficulty in acquiring basic provisions such as continence products. The county came in for criticism that the situation was still persisting two and a half years after the last OFSTED visit.
Inspectors also found that there was “inequitable” nursing provision in special schools in different areas.
Meanwhile, although autism diagnostic services were found to have improved in both their coverage and consistency, waiting times for assessments were deemed to be too long.
Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for children, young people and schools, Phillippa Williamson, said that she was pleased with the progress that had been identified by inspectors.
“To have made sufficient improvement in seven out of 12 areas is a major step forward and I’m particularly pleased that OFSTED acknowledged our engagement with parents and carers – and that the families themselves recognised that in their own feedback.
“Ultimately, we are trying to make things right for those families – and if they are saying there has been an improvement, that’s an endorsement.
“We’re a long way from being where we ideally want to be and we recognise the issues raised in the report – they were always going to be picked up, because it’s what was happening on the ground and parents and carers would quite rightly talk about these things – so we need to sort them out.
“OFSTED sets high standards and we were meeting them in seven areas and getting close in some of the others – so we should take comfort from that, but obviously not be complacen
She added that the “complexity” of the health and care system operating in Lancashire – which involves six different clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) working with the county council to deliver health and care services for SEND youngsters – was always going to be challenging.
An action plan to tackle outstanding weaknesses identified by OFSTED is expected to be drawn up in the coming weeks.
The last time Lancashire’s SEND services were assessed by OFSTED, the county’s parent carer forum (PCF) – designed to give a voice to families with children with special needs – had disbanded.
Since reforming almost two years ago, it has attempted to give families a platform to tell health and care leaders what life is really like for SEND youngsters.
PCF chair Sam Jones said she hoped that parents and carers would recognise the improvements described in the OFSTED report as reflecting their own experience.
“When OFSTED came last time, Lancashire was shocked by the findings – but the parents weren’t. They could have written that report, because they had experienced exactly what the inspectors saw.
“Hopefully, this time, those parents are seeing that things have changed. There are a minority of parents who have genuine issues that they feel have not been addressed. None of us are under any illusions, we all know we have still got a significant amount of work to do.
“But the positive working relationships we all have are a shining light. Previously, health did what they did, education did what they did and parents were left trying to get themselves heard. But now we are able to sit down together and have difficult conversations to inform senior people what our experience is like."