Inspecting SEND provision: What does Ofsted look for?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In previous Ofsted frameworks, SEND provision perhaps did not get the attention it deserved. With a higher profile in the EIF, Suzanne O’Connell asks how schools can ensure provision matches expectation

The SEND Code of Practice is clear. Schools must have high expectations and ambitions for their children with SEND (DfE, 2015).

The inspection of SEND provision is at the heart of the Education Inspection Framework (EIF) and the lowest 20% of attainers are the target of careful scrutiny through observations, work trawls, and subject leader discussions (Ofsted, 2019).

Inspectors expect to see that pupils with SEND are receiving the same entitlement and “cultural capital” as their peers.

“In class they were following up how the curriculum translated into practice in the classroom for the least able children,” explained headteachers Sandra LaPorta and Gemma Reynolds from Middlewich Primary School in Cheshire.

The school’s inspection report recognised the efforts made by staff to include all children: “Pupils with SEND achieve well. Leaders identify pupils who need additional support quickly. Teachers make sure that all pupils are included in lessons, for example by making appropriate adaptations to tasks for pupils with SEND. Pupils in the specially resourced provision benefit from an effective curriculum. They too achieve well.”

At the heart of the inspectors’ agenda is checking that all children are receiving a “good-quality” education and that they are achieving the best outcomes they can. Teachers can adapt the curriculum but broadly the entitlement must be the same and they must work towards the same learning goals.

For an outstanding judgement, schools need to demonstrate that:

  • Pupils consistently achieve highly, particularly the most disadvantaged.
  • Pupils with SEND achieve exceptionally well.

A good judgement requires that: “Leaders adopt or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils and including pupils with SEND, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. Pupils with SEND achieve the best possible outcomes.”

At the heart of this is the expectation that all pupils, regardless of their ability, can access the core content of the curriculum as it is delivered in the classroom.

Headteacher Update Podcast: This episode tackles Ofsted inspection with practical advice to help schools thrive when the inspectors call. Subject deep dives, 90-minute phone call, protecting workload, what to do if things go wrong, useful tips and anecdotes, and latest trends:

What will inspectors look for?

During the initial 90-minute phone call inspectors will check whether the school has any pupils with SEND and what the needs of those pupils are. Before coming to the school, the lead inspector will read through any published information on the school or trust’s website about SEND provision – for example the SEND information report and accessibility plan.

The inspector will also check the main findings from the local area SEND inspection. If there is a SEND resource base at the school, they will want to know more about this too.
Inspectors will want to know that all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND:

  • Acquire the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.
  • Make progress, in that they know more, remember more, and are able to do more – they are learning what is intended in the curriculum.
  • Produce work of high-quality.
  • Achieve well in national tests and examinations, where relevant.
  • Are being prepared for the next stage of education, training or employment at each stage of their learning, including whether pupils in sixth form are ready for the next stage and are going on to appropriate, high-quality destinations.
  • Are able to read to an age-appropriate level and with fluency.

The deep dive is the main instrument inspectors will use to determine how well a school is doing this...

The deep dive

A sample of pupils will be included in the deep dives and inspectors will be looking for information about SEND pupils through discussions with leaders, teachers and pupils, visits to lessons, and work scrutinies. They want to know:

  • Whether leaders are ambitious for their pupils with SEND.
  • How well leaders identify, assess and meet the needs of SEND pupils.
  • How well leaders ensure that the curriculum is coherently sequenced to meet all pupils’ needs, starting points and aspirations for the future.
  • How successfully leaders involve parents, carers and, as necessary, other professionals and specialist services in deciding how best to support pupils with SEND.
  • How well leaders include pupils with SEND in all aspects of school life.
  • How well leaders ensure that pupils’ outcomes are improving as a result of any different or additional provision, including any reasonable adjustments in remote education provision. This includes outcomes in:
    • Communication and interaction.
    • Cognition and learning.
    • Physical health and development.
    • Social, emotional and mental health.
  • How well pupils with SEND are prepared for their next steps.

Inspectors will take a sample of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) and will pay particular attention to ambition for these pupils and parental involvement.

On day two inspectors are bringing their findings together and are likely to ask for a discussion with the SENCO that focuses on pupils with SEND. Questions will vary from school to school depending on what was picked up on day one.

There is less emphasis on data than in the previous inspection framework and outcomes for SEND pupils will not be compared with those of other pupils in the school, locally or nationally.

What is most important is that disadvantaged pupils and pupils with SEND are not receiving a thinned down curriculum but that their knowledge and “cultural capital” is being built so that they can take a full part in society.

Subject leaders might be asked the following questions about SEND within their subject area during deep dive discussions:

  • How do you support pupils with SEND?
  • Who checks that you are supporting pupils correctly?
  • What support do you get?
  • How do you teach pupils to remember?
  • How do you make sure the pupils have learned information?

The progress of pupils with their reading is of particular interest to inspectors.


Inspectors will focus on the lowest 20% and they will listen to several low-attaining year 1 to 3 pupils read. You will need to demonstrate a determination that all pupils will learn to read and your approach to this will need to be collaborative between the SENCO and reading lead in the school.

The School Inspection Handbook (Ofsted, 2022) states: “(Inspectors) will pay particular attention to pupils who are reading below age-related expectations (the lowest 20%) to assess how well the school is teaching phonics and supporting all children to become confident, fluent readers.”

Inspectors will expect to see that books are closely matched to the sounds that pupils are learning.

  • Is there a clearly stated ambition that every child learns to read?
  • Is reading a priority in your school and particularly for the lowest 20% of pupils?
  • Is there a clear system for identifying the lowest 20% of readers and making provision for them?
  • How do you know the level SEND children are reading at?
  • Is there a clear system for identifying any pupil who is falling behind quickly?
  • Are there recommended resources to support the lowest 20%?
  • Is there a provision map of strategies and interventions for those falling behind?

SENCOs and literacy leads should work as part of a wider leadership team to shape overall school policy through the school development plan. The emphasis is on high-quality teaching across subjects and learners.


Inspectors will check on how leaders make appropriate and effective safeguarding arrangements that reflect the additional vulnerability of pupils with SEND. A particular issue here can be how pupils with specific types of SEND are able to communicate and report issues where there is a problem.

You will need to consider how you work with others to reduce the impact of communication barriers. SEND pupils can be more vulnerable to safeguarding issues such as peer-on-peer abuse, exploitation, and bullying and this needs special consideration in your safeguarding policy.


Where there are behavioural issues inspectors will look to see that behaviour and conduct reflect the school’s high expectations and that strategies are consistently implemented and show improvements.

Inspectors will want to feel assured of the reasons why a pupil is not in school at the time of the inspection. Be clear about the number of fixed-term exclusions and how many of these pupils have SEND. Inspectors may ask how you look for unmet needs among pupils who are exhibiting challenging behaviour.

Some final advice

  • Check your SEND information report on the website. It should cover the statutory requirements; be accessible; reflect your school’s practice; be reviewed with the involvement of parents.
  • Check that subject leaders are sharing your high expectations for SEND pupils. Pupils should benefit from the same ambitious curriculum as their peers.
  • Aim to ensure that SEND provision is woven throughout subjects and is everyone’s responsibility
  • Make sure that teachers are aware of the special needs of the children in their class.
  • Check for any additional support that is needed among subject leaders.
  • Ensure that you maintain links with your SEND governor and that they understand their role in challenging provision related to SEND.
  • Be aware of the outcomes of your Local Area SEND inspection.
  • Demonstrate that you “know” SEND provision in your school – its strengths and weaknesses.
  • Check that SEND pupils are not missing chunks of the curriculum by spending too much time out of class.
  • Be open and honest with inspectors.

Self-evaluation questions – ask yourself...

  • What strategies do teachers have available to them to help support the achievement of SEND pupils?
  • What strategies do teachers have available to help them support pupils who have fallen behind?
  • Are SEND pupils aware of what they need to do to improve?
  • Are parents clear about the support that their SEND child needs and what they are receiving in school?
  • Are there effective lines of communication with parents?
  • Are teaching assistants and external services used effectively and how is this demonstrated?
  • How do SEND pupils fare in terms of attendance, exclusions, and bullying?
  • How are plans for improving SEND provision represented in the school development plan?
  • Are teachers monitoring SEND pupils’ progress and how do I know this?
  • Are SEND pupils included in all activities?
  • Does CPD, irrespective of the subject, include reference to SEND pupils? 

A final thought

Many people felt that insufficient attention was given to SEND under the previous inspection framework. The renewed emphasis is to be welcomed, as is the expectation that SEND pupils’ coverage of the curriculum should not be restricted because of their additional needs.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Headteacher Update Spring Term Edition 2023

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Spring Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition will also be available soon via /digital-editions/

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