An open letter to Mr Harford

Dear Mr Harford,

I saw the link for a consultation on inspection for provision for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) today while I was eating my sandwiches.  I will be responding to the consultation later, but, while it is on my mind, I wanted to put some thoughts down on paper (as it were), in case the questions in the consultation don’t quite address my concerns and my train of thought is derailed.

If you don’t mind, I’ll get straight to the point.

  • The conflation of education with care

It may seem like a small thing to many people, and there is no doubt that some students with disabilities do need an element of care, but I cannot stress how important it is that, in educational establishments at the very least, care does not form a much of a part in assessment of services or in the language we use around the subject, except where there is a medical need for that child or young person.

The reason is this: while a medical model of disability is used in the diagnosis of an SEND, it is there that its usefulness in terms of provision and expectations pretty much ends – and the excuses begin.  What children with SEND need from us is an education so that they can, as much as they are able, become useful and valued members of society, rather than dear weak souls who must be cared for for the length of their short lives.  Being kind and caring is very nice, but it doesn’t make one effective.

**Amendment** I think it is worth asking the question of people what we mean by care. I am writing about the medical sort, where people are looked after rather than empowered. This is because my son has Down’s syndrome and this is something we have come across. It’s not great.

In that case, I would ask that you would ensure that your teams of inspectors are well trained in special education, so that the very last thing that they can be accused of is of patronising either the schools or the children with a ‘poor little dears’ mentality that devalues their judgements.

I would suggest, in this endeavour, that your inspectors have some time to familiarise themselves – as well as become inspired by great practice – with the fabulous schools and colleges who are working to change lives and secure futures right now.

  • Identification

Identification of SEND is a fraught business, and, as both a parent and a teacher I have a couple of thoughts to add to the mix.  As far as a condition like my son’s, Down’s syndrome, is concerned, it is a relatively simple matter to diagnose.  An experienced midwife and a quick blood test and you’re done.  There is either an extra chromosome or there isn’t.  Where the problem lies is in how this diagnosis is communicated to parents, both expectant and very new.

Could I suggest that you take some time to look at the work of Hayley Goleniowska on the language that people working in the medical profession use when talking to new or expectant parents.  While I appreciate that Ofsted has little to do with medicine, the EHCP is where the two worlds meet, and this attitude of doom towards disability has really got to change.

As far as identification in schools is concerned, I would like you to ensure that teachers (all of them) know that SEND is not directly linked to attainment.  I am not convinced that many teachers really understand this (particularly in primary, because I work in that phase)  – and autism is a case in point.  The *amendment* average age of diagnosis for Asperger’s (that’s people with Autism who function at a high educational level) is 11-12 years old.  They have left us in primary, and have joined the secondary school – where their chances of losing the plot and being excluded are much higher.

Often, I hear of the reason why a child does not have a diagnosis of whatever learning disability it might be, is that their attainment is not bad enough.  Well, what happens when working their little socks off is not going to help them any more?  What happens when they can no longer cope?  They still have an SEND.  It’s not always about attainment by any means.

We seem to have a ‘step in when we are at crisis point’ mentality and this has to change.

  • Local area arrangements

I would like you to look at firstly how these are communicated to parents.  Putting them up on a badly designed local authority website is not good enough.  Handing out the odd glossy leaflet is not good enough.

Parents of children with SEND are often tired and hassled.  Information has a tendency to go in one ear and out of the other.  Someone needs to take responsibility for making real relationships and having enough knowledge of what is out there to make sure that the right thing gets to the right person at the right time.

At the moment it is far too ad hoc and this has to change.

In addition, I would like you to look at where activities and services are happening in relation to where the children and young people actually live.  Are they having to drive some distance so that they can access something that is suitable for their needs, or have all methods been employed to ensure that there are quality inclusive options in their area so that they can get together with their typically developing peers in sensitive and creative ways, rather than be herded together, miles away from the communities in which they live, in some sort of ‘Special Needs Club’?

If there are inclusive options, I would like you to assess their quality.  Saying that everyone is welcome is the first step on the journey but it is not enough.  I am not sure that everyone understands this and that there are some providers out there who claim to be inclusive, invite some disabled kids along (preferably the easy(!) ones) and change nothing about what they do – as part of some tick box exercise in order that they can get their funding.  This has to change.

I would like you to investigate the level of training, knowledge and understanding of SEND in our schools.  I’m not convinced that it is very good – and that has to change.

  • Inspect the inspectors

Let’s face it, the focus on attainment and progress at all costs isn’t helpful as far as inclusive practice is concerned.  Learning needs and disabilities come in many shapes and forms, they aren’t easy to understand, and neither is teaching children with them easy to do.  Sometimes it can take a child a long time to get to a place where they are capable of learning.  This needs to be explicitly understood by inspectors and good practice celebrated.  Otherwise nothing will change.

I hope you don’t mind me making this letter an open one – I have a sneaking suspicion that there are lots of other people out there who will read it – and will have something else of value to contribute.

If you are reading this and you have a story to tell Mr Harford that will help him in his endeavours to understand the state of provision for children and young people with SEND, please do use the comments.  Here is the link to the consultation.

Thank you for reading,



Here is a picture of my son reading – which some teachers believed he would never be able to do – and told me so.
A comment from a friend regarding mental health:

My concern is that many children with SEND also need support from Children’s Services for Short Breaks, Family Support, Child Protection and so on; they’re not getting it. In my own LA, an Ofsted inspection earlier this year rated Children’s Services as Inadequate and they deserved it. It’s given them such a kick up the bum that Social Workers are now trying really hard and managers are responding. For so long we’ve wanted Ofsted to get involved in SEND and expose what goes on: if they are opening files and interviewing families I think that’s a very good thing and we need to work with them to get it right.

34 thoughts on “An open letter to Mr Harford

  1. Hi, thanks for sharing your blog. I just wanted to ask about this bit. I believe the wellbeing and care of our students is so important. Totally agree that they should not be viewed with pity and their successes celebrated. How do we balance the need for a caring environment and need to boost self esteem and sense of security with educational targets/data?

    1. I think you raise a really important issue. I suppose what I am getting at is that in so many people’s minds ‘care’ is intimately connected with disability in a medical-what-can-you-expect-awwww kind of way.
      I think part of what you are talking about is the care we give our students of teachers of children with mental health needs – often expressed through their behaviour. Without tackling these first, by providing that caring and safe space in which children can learn, not much learning goes on.
      In my view there needs to be a much more nuanced form of inspection that isn’t solely focussed on attainment – or these children will be lost, and the hard and valuable work of their teachers remain unrecognised and uncelebrated.
      To my mind, we need to look again at what form of accountability we need for our system. I’m not at all sure that we have got it right.

      1. That is exactly what I meant. I agree SEN schools do need inspectors with great understanding of the issues. Speaking to parents there is a range of expectations from self help skills to academic progress equivalent to siblings etc. As teachers we have to balance a range of demands and needs while often also acting as advocates for some students. Good intentions not always enough. Again thanks for writing the blog and taking the time to reply.

  2. Thank you for writing this and really starting a debate on this consultation, which can only help everyone in the long term. All the key questions to be answered you have highlighted and the part about where activities and services are happening is particularly pertinent.
    As a parent I think the part about care is particularly important to highlight and like you I think it is worth asking the question of people what we mean by care.
    Thank you for being the voice for so many parents – we really appreciate it.

  3. Really good post Nancy – as usual!

    In terms of inspectors, it is interesting that Ofsted has committed itself publicly to inspecting compliance with the Equality Act (I will share this letter, just waiting for some final details) under the Common Inspection Framework. This, it says, will extend to considering compliance with the Act’s specific duties regulations. Presumably, in light of this commitment, Ofsted will also be considering compliance with the Act when inspecting LAs?

    The importance of this is that the Act provides a focus on rights and equality beyond the SEN rhetoric. It certainly moves us away from the medical model of disability and seeks to avoid the risk of the ‘aw bless’ factor that you describe so well. The Act also imposes clear statutory obligations which should promote inclusion in practice as evidence of action is required to demonstrate that the public body is trying to eliminate discrimination, foster good relations and promote equal opportunities in all its functions.

    Of course, the problem is: will Ofsted inspectors have any idea what they are looking for? If Ofsted still see SEN through the lens of academic attainment and have no identifiable way of considering genuine inclusion (how involved is a child in the life of the school?), won’t we be just extending the current ‘are we doing anything for the SEN kids?’ approach from schools to LAs?

    As I flagged up on Twitter today, many parents of children identified as having SEN end up moving from Ofsted ‘outstanding’ because the focus on attainment levels and data and external appearances ( do we do open mornings, celebrating assemblies, hand out attendance certificates, refuse holidays etc) replaces the development of real relationships.

    It’s more about providing a record of something being done than actually doing it. And that applies across the board….schools, LAs, hospitals etc

    Some random thoughts!

  4. ‘In addition, I would like you to look at where activities and services are happening in relation to where the children and young people actually live. Are they having to drive some distance so that they can access something that is suitable for their needs, or have all methods been employed to ensure that there are quality inclusive options in their area so that they can get together with their typically developing peers in sensitive and creative ways, rather than be herded together, miles away from the communities in which they live, in some sort of ‘Special Needs Club’?’

    Yes yes yes – but this goes for educational provision also. In a county which only offers mainstream or MLD/SLD, but nothing in between, no bases, nada, I’ve been asking the question for years already as to where my daughter with autism who will not be able to cope in secondary mainstream, but who has no learning disability per se, will be educated. I am not getting any response. I am not alone. There are hundreds of parents in this county who have the same question; many would like to open a Free School to provide for these children but a) we are all out of energy and b) we are thwarted at every turn anyway. The answer for some is to send them privately out of county to expensive schools. Not an option for us, as our daughter can’t bear travelling any length of time. In any case, County don’t want to pay for expensive placements obviously, so there have been many lengthy and expensive battles. Definitely a case of waiting for crisis point here.

    Whilst I welcome the news today, I have concerns that the Inspectors will a) remain unbiased when dealing with LAs, especially if they have worked in LAs before and b) that they simply won’t speak to enough parents to take on enough feedback and make the necessary changes.

  5. Thank you Nancy for bringing this to everyone’s attention. As a parent of a child with special educational needs I do feel the system (medical and educational) has failed my child, by being too quick to deny any needs. I will be filling in the form re the consultation. As a student midwife I will also be looking at the recommended reading by Hayley Goleniowska, thank you for pointing that out.

  6. Accompanying my own child to crisis point has led to enduring trauma (mostly for my daughter but also in part, for me) which follows us as we try to rebuild trust in a system that did not recognise the subtlety and complexity of her anxiety until it started to impact on her attainment and which is, ultimately, avoidable if there is enough knowledge and flexibility within the system (and the individuals who work within the system).

    In addition to all of the points raised in the comments so far, I’m especially interested in how the exceptional practices that already exist can be shared effectively – both in mainstream and special settings. There are pockets of brilliance happening all over the country which means they categorically can be replicated.

    ‘Inclusive options’ is another under discussed topic and, in my experience there are, again, pockets of excellence where inclusion simply happens without any fanfare. We were treated dreadfully by the allegedly inclusive Riding for the Disabled school whereas the local Brownie troupe, with nothing more than an informal chat about my daughter, have consistently been meeting her needs for years. Again, this is not only possible but replicable.

    There are so many voices now saying similar (if not identical) things that I really hope we will be listened to.

    1. Oh, Thai is heartbreaking!
      And you have identified one of the things that really gets to me – in that many of the problems are systemic, but, when it comes down to it, some professionals are just not very nice people. 😦

  7. Nancy, so many important points here. Especially for me around high achieving youngsters with SEN & how we ensure that they ARE achieving to the best of their abilities rather than the assumption that they’re doing well so all is ok. On holiday at the moment but you’ve got me thinking.

      1. Nancy, I’m never not thinking about schools or more importantly the children we serve – even on holiday! Just got a huge pile of papers from a GB I have been asked to join!

  8. Hi Nancy,
    The SEND issues that you raise are very clear and pertinent. It all needs saying very loudly, as it affects a group of children who are vulnerable and need adult advocates to argue for them. This in turn often pits adult against adults in a forum.
    If children are not sufficiently “poor” to need an EHCP, they become, in my opinion, even more vulnerable, as they are deemed to be in the “normal” band.
    Keep making the argument. Be well.

  9. Nancy you have summed this up quite beautifully as always, and if I may say, you’re just getting better and better at this whole writing thing. You are the voice of the people, a vox populi if you will. So grateful for you.
    Our journey is particularly hazardous at the moment, sailing the somewhat choppy waters leading to whatever exists beyond college in a town where inclusion means babysitting, the “care” you describe so well where a college tutor even admitted there was no point building up expectations of a job after college as there really isn’t anything out there for “them”.
    We obviously asked where they had tried to find vocational training and work placements – apparently they haven’t even tried.
    This inspection is long overdue and I cannot wait to add my voice to the noise. CAN NOT WAIT!

    On a positive note the excellent head of the special school Emily attended post 16 has become an Ofsted inspector so if he’s involved I have every confidence in the process.
    THE single most important point is for the voice of the person with SEN and their parents/cater to be heard above the excuses of LAs.

    1. Thank you so much – and yes, we must add our voices to each other. We want things to be better not just for our own kids, but for society – and because it is the right thing to do. Thank you for adding to the conversation (and the compliments!).

  10. Sometimes it’s the details that can crush the soul, my lovely boy who is autistic and has major sensory and anxiety issues has struggled on bravely attending his special school. He finds it hard to be in an environment with so many people but has battled on and at 16 is tentatively joining in. To help him cope I drive him to school myself and we go in 10 mins after the rest of the children to avoid the crowds and help him start the day calmly. We have a new EWO in the area who has decided, without meeting him, that this is unacceptable and he is to be marked late everyday. I have been asked to sign a register every morning stating the reason for his lateness. It goes without saying we shall be disputing this but it feels like a humiliation and undermines everything we have been supporting him to achieve. The system really does suck. Where is the humanity, flexibility and down right common sense?

  11. OK, one comment from the head, then one from the heart:

    Inspection is one thing: verification is what matters here, and with SEN, you cannot verify meaningfully at a strategic level – despite what the consultants would have us believe.

    My eldest used to go to school in an LA near London. This LA’s strategic SEN documentation is a thing of beauty: identification pathways, criteria for providing support, detailed provision mapping, desired outcomes in five years, you get the picture.

    Trouble is, at an operational level this document is fiction – and unlawful fiction, at that. At operational level, the identification pathways are distorted – because the LA leans on its paid professionals to minimise need. The criteria for accessing support are unlawful, and have been proven so many times over at SENDIST. The provision mapping works like the concept of cold fusion: transformative, but always a few years in the future. And the SEN teams in this LA are incentivised in ways that pervert the strategic framework.

    Very little of this appears on paper – by and large, it’s known by parents’ and charities’ efforts to hold the LA & NHS CCGs to account. You cannot see the damage that is being done to children with SEN – the opportunities lost forever – by viewing this at a strategic level. The city of Mosul looks wonderfully peaceful from a satellite in low-earth orbit.

    So Ofsted & CQC have a verification problem. A big one. And one that can only be met by a widespread collation and analysis of evidence at ground level. The draft EHCPs that do not contain specified, quantified provision. The use of SENDIST as a means of delaying expenditure. The schools who cannot access top-up funding to supplement their truly ‘notional’ SEN budget. The LAs who tell their SENCOs that local policy is the law – when it is light-years away from being lawful.

    I’m going to go through the consultation document in detail, and reply. Sean Harford’s willingness to engage is a fantastic thing. But there’s one thing that hits me between the eyes on a first skim of the consultation document.

    It makes no mention of legal duties. Responsibilities, yes. But I can’t find anywhere anything that says that Ofsted & CQC will be explicitly seeking to confirm that local area services are complying with the law. Nothing – nothing – will change unless local area services are held to account for their failure to abide by the law, or celebrated for their willingness to do so.

  12. OK, next one from the heart:

    I’ve got two children with severe SEN. They now have a school placement that educationally and socially, is transforming their lives – the ‘best possible outcomes’ that the new SEN legislation aspires to. It is a truly awesome place.

    Our family weathered the initial storm of disability: dealing with diagnosis, learning how to help the kids develop, protecting them when they experienced social stigma, giving them a sense of self-worth and pride in who they are. We managed all that, just like thousands of other parents in our shoes do.

    But the process of getting our kids the educational support they need? That nearly destroyed us – and we’re not alone in that.

    How did that come about? Pretty simple. Our local authority fought us at every turn. None of its actions was in the best interests of my kids. None of their actions even aimed at giving them the then-legal minimum of an ‘adequate education.’ All of their actions were deeply unprofessional; many of their actions were unlawful.

    We got there in the end: a six-month Tribunal process and two mental breakdowns later, the kids finally – finally have a shot at life. It was worth it – but it never, never should have been this way.

    And the worst thing about this? There are thousands of families in the same boat right now. Still. Families who coped fine with the stress of disability and severe illness, who now find themselves falling apart simply to get their kids a shot at a couple of GCSEs and some friends.

    My youngest’s best mate? He’s nails. He beat cancer at the age of 3, FFS. He’s a tough cookie – but he nearly fell apart with the stress of knowing that an entire council was trying to deny him a place at the special school he needed. His LA acted unlawfully. Repeatedly, without mercy, without remorse. Because it could. Because it can. Because it is not accountable in any meaningful sense of the word.

    This is why Ofsted & CQC have to get this right. Because there is no-one else out there both willing and able to hold organisations like this LA to account. Parents and charities have been holding the ring here for far, far too long. And thus far, no-one else has stepped in. LA complaints process? Useless. LGO? Toothless? DfE? Nothing to see here, move along.

    How do I know my LA’s actions were wrong? Because along the way, I have had to read, learn and inwardly digest several hundred pages of dense legalese and education jargon. I have had to argue, resist intimidation, fight my kids’ corner, do it again and again, year after year. Not for a Rolls-Royce education. Simply to get my bright, hard-working lads a shot at basic literacy, numeracy and a peer group.

    We’re sick and tired of being the ones doing the accountability. We’ve got kids with SEN to bring up. Frankly, life is busy enough.

    Over to you, Ofsted & CQC. Please – please – don’t bugger this up.

  13. Bravo Beefo, the lack of transparency in SEN provision could be viewed as criminal. SEND systems still don’t focus on strategies and solutions. Far too many documents / plans are written with budgets in mind, are constrained by a lack of trained and experienced staff (who don’t get the time to plan and review as a team), use ineffective and unscientifically proven resources and are signed off by LAs who blindly believe inclusion in mainstream settings suit all needs.

    It is laudable that the government has pronounced that every teacher is a teacher of special needs, but this is not happening in reality. Mainstream teachers just don’t have the time to learn, practise and self reflect about the range of special needs, in mainstream school classes, in the depth that they need so that they can be teachers of SEND. For example we know the ITT programmes still don’t teach SEND effectively and once a teacher is in service the classroom pressures often mean they focus on the majority.

    A child who is struggling socially and/ or emotionally needs support and ‘therapy’ to mentor them regardless of their academic attainment. A child who is ‘working’ at 2 or more years ‘behind’ their peers in junior school will find it demoralising to sit in lessons where the main body of teaching bears little tangible relation to the task they’ll be able to undertake. Should they stay in the lesson so that they feel ‘included’ even though it could be judged they’re just waiting or should they work in another room/ area with a TA learning/ on a task at a level that is pertinent to their needs but effectively working in isolation?

    There must be a better solution so that all children are educated in settings that foster their self esteem, give them autonomy and celebrate their achievements.

  14. Fantasticly written. Something I would also like to add is “we don’t fit in one box” with special needs and the LA’s don’t seem to cater for this. DS is severe language impairment SPLD. However this is no provision here specifically for that. He is not autistic and he is not MLD. So where do we go for secondary? He needs specialist provision but there is none that fits.

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