Staff crisis hampering children’s pandemic recovery, says Ofsted

Children who have special education needs among those worst affected, says England watchdog’s chief inspector

Children’s recovery from the pandemic is being held back by a workforce crisis in schools, colleges and early years, with children who have special education needs among those worst affected, according to England’s schools inspectorate, Ofsted.

Publishing her annual report on Tuesday, Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, said the Covid pandemic continued to “cast a long shadow” over children’s education and social care, and despite teachers’ best efforts, recovery was “far from complete”.

Staffing problems at all levels of children’s education and social care were compounding problems that stand in the way of a full recovery, Ofsted said, with schools struggling to recruit teaching assistants to help with lost learning, and nurseries losing early years workers to better paid jobs in retail and hospitality.

Children are also losing out on sports, drama, music and other enrichment activities, as schools continue to experience staff absence due to Covid, and intervention for children who need additional help has been delayed due to fewer support staff.

Pupils with the most complex needs were often the least well served, the report said, with support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) under even greater strain during the pandemic from which it had not recovered.

Ofsted said demand for specialist services had grown significantly, with an additional 77,000 children identified as having SEND taking the overall figure up to 1.5 million pupils, meaning speech and language therapy and mental health support were not always available and there were delays in assessments for education, health and care plans.

Launching her sixth annual report since taking over the role, Spielman said: “The pandemic continued to cast a shadow over education and children’s social care for much of the past year. And the energy crisis and economic pressures have brought more turbulence in recent months.

“Across all age groups in education, careful thought has been given to making up lost learning. However, achievement gaps are still wider than before the pandemic, meaning the recovery is far from complete. And it’s clear that in education – and in children’s social care – staffing issues are compounding problems standing in the way of a full recovery.

“We owe the current generation of young people as much security and certainty as we can provide for what remains of their childhood. And we must offer them the education, training and opportunities they need to secure their future. To do that, it’s vital that education and social care providers are able to recruit, train and retain talented and capable people.”

Overall, however, the report said inspections suggested an “improving picture”, with 88% of all state-funded schools now judged good or outstanding – up nearly two percentage points from 2021 – and 70% of schools previously judged to require improvement now up to good or outstanding after inspection last year.

In an online press conference, Spielman said workforce issues were across the board, with a third of children’s home staff leaving in the year up to March and 44% of staff newly hired, while foster carers have fallen to their lowest number in years.

On SEND, she said the increase in the number of pupils identified as having special needs was partly down to the pandemic, so it was often an issue of catch up more than a long-term special needs issue.

Spielman also raised concerns about the government’s decision to drop its schools bill which included new powers for Ofsted to tackle illegal schools and a register for children who are out of school. She said both should be prioritised by the government.

The Ofsted report highlighted the growing use of part-time timetables in schools as an alternative to exclusions, which Spielman said was fine if used in the short-term to handle a crisis, but could lead to a children “sliding out of education altogether” if used indefinitely.

And while high levels of pupil absence have fallen, the chief inspector said there were still problems with persistent absenteeism. “For a minority of families, the social contract around schooling – attendance in return for education – has become fractured, perhaps tested by periods of lockdown,” Ofsted said.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, described Ofsted’s latest report as “shocking” and testimony to “over a decade of neglect” of education and the services needed by children with SEND, looked after children and others who need individual help.

A Department for Education spokesperson said the government had invested £5bn in education recovery, with over 2 m tutoring courses now started, and school budgets set to be boosted to their highest ever level in real terms by 2024/25. Councils have also been provided with £4.8bn to help support children’s social care and children’s homes.

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Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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