A case study of inspection during Covid

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

Ofsted’s inspection schedule is back in full swing but there have been accusations that inspectors are not taking account of the pandemic hardships that schools have faced. Suzanne O’Connell caught up with executive headteacher Joe Roberts following a recent Ofsted

Ofsted has been given an extra £24m in the government’s spending review to speed up the rate of inspections, the intention being to inspect all schools by the summer of 2025.

At a time when schools are still suffering extreme disruption this has not been well-received in all quarters. At the same time, it has also been revealed that outstanding schools will not be exempt from this Ofsted trawl.

There has been outrage in union circles and outspoken comments about the timing and approach being taken by the inspectorate since September.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has accused the inspectorate of being “completely out of step with the extremely challenging circumstances facing schools”.

Meanwhile, Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the announcement felt “completely tone-deaf” (Headteacher Update, 2021).

He added: “We are still a very long way from business as usual in schools. Ofsted seems to be unwilling to properly take into account the very significant challenges schools are still facing, as well as the impact Covid has had.”

With day-to-day guidance and recommendations constantly changing and huge numbers of staff and pupils absent from school due to Covid infection and close contacts (DfE, 2021), it seems a big ask of schools to welcome inspectors at the same time as managing the myriad other challenges we face at the moment.

But what do the inspections actually look like on the ground?

A Covid inspection case study

Joe Roberts is the executive headteacher of Drake and Morice Town Primary Academies in Plymouth. Drake Primary has just been inspected.

Mr Roberts forms part of the executive leadership team which also includes the head of school, head of safeguarding and welfare and SENCO. The leadership team works across both sites, which are only a quarter of a mile apart, and have been working together in this way for four years.

Alongside dealing with Covid, Drake Primary had also had a tragedy take place close by. On August 12, a gunman killed five people and injured two others before killing himself.

The tragedy has had an impact on the school and was still causing shockwaves when Mr Roberts received notice of inspection on September 28 and 29.

However, the school didn’t want to postpone the inspection. The school’s last visit was in 2015 and they had been due an inspection in 2020 following their conversion to academy status. Inspection was on the cards and they wanted to get on with it.

“Following the shooting we had some advice about how to address the issue with the children,” explained Mr Roberts. “We were told to be honest, factual and not to give an opinion, for example about the gunman. Instead, we highlighted the school as being a safe place to be and tried to keep life there as normal as possible.”

The inspection focus

The main emphasis of the inspection was: “What is it like to be a pupil in this school?”

Mr Roberts commented: “It was quite refreshing in comparison to other inspections. The two inspectors focused on early reading, mathematics, history and physical education. They also chose to look at PSHE as part of a lighter touch dive or ‘shallow paddle’.”

The inspectors’ interest in the broader curriculum was evident and they wanted to know the rationale around the choices the school had made.

“They wanted to know the thinking behind what we teach,” Mr Roberts continued. He and his staff feel strongly that it is important that teachers build on knowledge of what is closest to the pupils. For example, there is a clear focus on Plymouth in their planning and this suited the inspectors’ lines of enquiry.

SEND was another area of particular interest during the inspection: “I think this was partly because one of the inspectors had an interest in this. A piece of advice I would give is to check the biographies of the inspectors that are assigned to you and whether they have specialist interests. They looked at our SEN targets and how they played out in the classroom.”

Covid and catch-up

The inspectors talked “relatively little” about Covid, Mr Roberts told Headteacher Update. He added: “I know from some other recently inspected schools that they were asked more questions about the impact in the school and the measures taken. Inspectors did want to know, however, what changes we had made to the teaching sequences since the pandemic.

“We had conducted a survey after the first lockdown of what had worked well and what needed improving. The inspectors seemed to like this.”

Drake Primary had had 45 per cent of students continuing to attend school during the second lockdown and found that reassuring pupils, both those returning and those receiving them, was a key issue.

Inspectors asked about how the staff were adjusting the curriculum to address any gaps: “We explained that we looked at mathematics, for example, to see what pupils had missed and we cut back on some content in other areas to ensure that the most important aspects were covered.”

What was different

Kept guessing: Mr Roberts is not new to the inspection process and he was surprised that the outcome remained unclear until the end of the inspection: “The inspectors kept their cards close to their chest. Previously there had been lots of catch-up meetings but this time there wasn’t as much of an indication of how things were going.”

Middle leaders: As we already know from the new framework, the emphasis on middle leaders has increased and meetings are conducted with them as much as with the senior leadership: “A lot of the time they didn’t want to talk to the executive head or the head of school. They were more interested in the middle leaders’ perspectives on the quality of teaching and the progress the children were making.”

Data not the focus: Inspectors were not concerned about data and this was in stark contrast to other inspections: “The only data they had available was from 2019 and they said that this was too old. There were very few conversations about statistics. They just wanted generic information about the Pupil Premium and wanted staff to articulate the children’s achievements rather than it being presented in figures.”

Knowledge retention: There was a lot of interest in long-term memory and what pupils could recall from previous topics: “They talked to the children to find out what they could remember. They also looked at last year’s and this year’s books. They asked the children about marking and what their best piece of work was. Inspectors wanted them to be able to talk about what they’d done and articulate their learning.”

Final advice

So what are the takeaways for Mr Roberts from inspection under the new and resumed Ofsted regime?

  • It is important to be able to articulate your curriculum – what you are covering and why.
  • Be clear about the adaptations you have made to plug any gaps.
  • Prepare middle leaders – they will be a focus of the inspection.
  • Expect a lot of attention on reading and phonics.
  • Make sure children keep their books tidy, understand the marking policy, and can talk about their work.
  • Ensure progress is evident this year.
  • Spend some time reflecting with children on what they have done previously.
  • Be watertight on your safeguarding – everyone is asked questions about it including ancillary staff. Inspectors are looking for consistency across the school
  • Make sure that the reading books that children are using are appropriate to the level of phonics being taught

The outcome for Mr Roberts and his school was good and they emerged from the process without suffering too much anxiety or disruption: “They were a fair team. We worked hard at providing a warm welcome and being as helpful as possible when they asked for different items to ensure it was a positive process for the school.”.

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

Further information & resources

  • DfE: Week 50: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, December 14, 2021:
  • Headteacher Update: Tone-deaf: Ofsted’s plan to accelerate inspections slammed by school leaders, November 2021: https://bit.ly/31rH8E2

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