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Bring the calm during inspection chaos

By Abbey Cortazzi, Senior Communications Manager for Children, Families and Lifelong Learning at Surrey County Council

There’s no doubt that organisations look to communications professionals to bring composure and leadership during times of crisis. And, although perhaps not a traditional crisis management situation, inspections do bring a similar amount of anxiety and pressure, and the need for careful communications management.

A Local Area SEND inspection looks at education, health and care services for children and young people aged 0-25 who have additional needs and disabilities.

It spans a whole ‘Local Area’ rather than individual services to ensure they are effective both individually and as a partnership and is undertaken by inspectors from Care Quality Commission (CQC) and Ofsted.

With Surrey recently inspected in September 2023, I’ve put together 10 tips on how to plan communications before, during and after a Local Area SEND inspection – in an attempt to bring some calm to the chaos:

Do the prep
Having an agreed communications plan in place, well in advance of the inspection, is vital. Inspections can spark worry and uncertainty among the workforce, and having a plan that can be circulated far and wide will ease concerns. Plus, being a partner-wide inspection, you’ll find there are more stakeholders to consider than with a typical inspection, and it takes time to put plans in place. It’s also important to make the role of the communications team clear as boundaries can get blurred under pressure, and you need to ensure you focus on the right things.

Know what will be expected of you
You can find out more about the framework and what’s expected of the Partnership here. Set out your key communications milestones in advance. On day one, you’ll be asked by Ofsted and CQC to distribute a survey to parents/carers, schools and other key audiences and you can’t do this effectively without plans, distribution lists and established channels.

Get to know your audiences
Mapping out your key audiences and utilising insight will help you track any changes in attitudes before, during and after the inspection. This is key to ensure the right tone in your communications and ultimately mitigate risk. You can draw on insight from colleagues and partners who know the process and are in contact with frontline staff and schools, and you can use external monitoring tools to track social media. Don’t forget to also track national media coverage, particularly during the inspection.

Consider the risks
Use your insight to pinpoint key risk areas, both internally and externally and set them out in your communications plan. Be bold and ask senior leaders the big question – what do you think our outcome will be? Although this will only give you an indication, it is very helpful to know how much risk you might need to mitigate.

Lead from the front
Be proactive with internal stakeholder communications, particularly to senior leaders to give them confidence in your handling of the communications – don’t wait for them to ask you what the plan is. Senior leaders need to have trust in the communications lead, who will need political understanding and confidence in leading and influencing partners.

Our operational lead also shared daily internal updates with staff and partners – this is of course time consuming but very effective in monitoring progress and ensuring everyone is kept up to date.

Get you know your key stakeholders and partner comms colleagues, you’ll need each other!
It’s really helpful to clarify respective partner leads for each organisation involved in the inspection, and to clearly set out roles of other comms leads to avoid confusion. This includes having an agreed approval process in place for any joint communications to limit the pain of too many cooks and version control dramas.

Co-production is important when communicating about additional needs and disabilities
You need to test your communications to ensure they are accessible, and the tone is right for all audiences. To do this, utilise your parent carer forum who can advise on how communications will land with parents and carers, and ask schools for their views too. It would be a mistake to shout too loudly about the progress you’ve made if that isn’t what families and frontline staff are experiencing – try to find the balance.

Bring out your inner media trainer
On the last day of our SEND inspection in Surrey we were given a challenge by our Executive Director – come and help us prepare staff for the last day of interviews.  We kept it simple and essentially did quick fire media training with staff just before they walked into the interview – a bit like speed dating! We challenged colleagues to write down their three key messages and helped them articulate their experiences in a concise and direct way. It made a huge difference.

Don’t ignore social media
As we know, social media has a big hand in shaping the online narrative and families are likely to turn to social media to air any dissatisfaction during the inspection. In advance of the inspection, consider how scheduled content will land – don’t just post content you think inspectors want to see, people will see straight through it. Make sure you are monitoring social media, particularly during the inspection and track public sentiment, using feedback to guide your content strategy.

Post inspection – own the outcome
Comms leads obviously have a key part to play in communicating the outcome – positive or negative. Transparency and honesty is key here – don’t be tempted to sugar coat a negative outcome, it won’t land well! In our experience, it can help to brief journalists to help broaden understanding and set in the wider context. Don’t forget to train your external spokespeople in advance – if the outcome is negative, it could be a difficult, but necessary, interview so make sure they are ready and confident.
In Surrey, we took the decision to hold a Special Cabinet meeting in public to address the outcome of our latest inspection. Members and the public were given the opportunity to ask questions in advance and we proactively explained our action plan to address any required improvements. This approach went down well, and it helped make people feel included and heard.

Finally, try and enjoy it! If you like a little pressure and stakeholder management, it’s a great experience – and rewarding to see balanced understanding of the outcome as a result.


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