Covid: Ofsted urged to grant inspection deferrals for schools in 'crisis mode'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Ofsted is being urged to grant deferral requests from schools that find themselves in “crisis mode” due to the sharp increases in Covid-related absence of pupils and staff.

Given the huge disruption caused by increasing Covid infection in schools, leaders are urging England’s inspectorate to grant inspection deferrals on request.

Schools can currently request inspections be deferred, but the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) says the bar is “very high” and “isn’t suitable” in a pandemic situation. It has now written to Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman urging action.

Inspections were suspended in March 2020 during the first school lockdown. Ofsted resumed all types of routine inspections this term and between September and the October half-term around 500 have taken place.

However, Covid-related absence in schools has been rising sharply throughout the autumn term. The latest figures show that on October 21, 248,000 children (3.2 per cent) were absent from school in England for Covid-related reasons – up from 209,000 (2.6 per cent) a fortnight previously (DfE, 2021).

And many schools are struggling with chronic staffing issues given absence rates among teachers and teaching assistants. Staff absence continues to rise, with 2.1 per cent of teachers and school leaders and 1.8 per cent of support staff off work for Covid reasons on October 21 (DfE, 2021).

Schools are hoping that the half-term break will provide some respite from rising infection levels. Early signs are cautiously positive.

Data from the Office for National Statistics show that in the week ending October 22, 4.1 per cent of primary-age pupils and 9.1 per cent of secondary-age pupils had tested positive for Covid – notably higher than for any other age category (ONS, 2021a).

However, ONS data for the week ending October 30 shows that infection rates have fallen marginally to four per cent for primary-age pupils and 7.5 per cent for secondary-age pupils (ONS, 2021b).

But the fact remains that for many schools the situation remains on a knife-edge, as leaders cope with staffing issues and providing remote education for increasing numbers of pupils.

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said it was time for Ofsted “to recognise that it is not business as usual in schools and colleges and that many are experiencing huge disruption”.

He continued: “Lots are juggling online learning and in-person teaching with different groups of pupils at different points in time and with fewer staff available.

“It isn’t fair to insist that schools must be inspected when they are in crisis mode. They need to be able to focus their time and energy on the core business of teaching and supporting children, rather than having to deal with inspections that could easily be done at another time.”

ASCL believes that the disruption means inspectors cannot make valid judgements “because they aren’t seeing the school as it operates normally”. In fact, the process will just be adding to the pressure on the school, it says.

Mr Barton added: “Ofsted introduced changes into inspection handbooks at the start of this term to take coronavirus into account, but these changes don’t go far enough in recognising very serious disruption.

“The circumstances vary between schools so we are not calling for a general moratorium on inspections, but for Ofsted to grant deferrals on request. There is a deferral process already in place but the bar for deferrals is set very high and isn’t suitable for this situation.”

ASCL has written to Ofsted formally requesting this change in policy. It says it would continue to support inspections in cases where there are serious safeguarding concerns or concerns about a breakdown in leadership and management.

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