Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman has said it is “absolutely right” to hold routine inspections while schools are still grappling with Covid, after facing a grilling from school leaders.
In a speech at the Schools & Academies Show in Birmingham today, Spielman sought to reassure schools that Ofsted inspectors “know what you’re up against” with the pandemic. But she said reimposing routine inspections had been a “ministerial decision”.
It comes amid union calls to make it easier for schools to defer inspections when they are in “crisis mode”, and widespread anger from leaders claiming inspectors fail to fully reflect Covid’s toll on schools.
Spielman began her speech by acknowledging it “really isn’t business as usual” given challenges including levels of pupil and staff absences.
“It’s been a torrid 20 months, and it’s absolutely right that we recognise that.”
Ofsted inspectors have been in schools “regularly” and “seen first-hand” how difficult Covid has made their work even when routine inspections were suspended, she added.
Routine inspections started again in September, with 500 inspections between September and the October half term.
She said many school leaders were “ready for an inspection” and keen to show how much they had improved.
But members of the audience voiced their anger at the inspectorate during questions after her speech.
One headteacher said he “cannot explain” how differently his school is operating in a Covid environment, facing the “profound” struggle to keep it open at all.
He said the idea it was the right time to do normal inspections was “profoundly wrong”, and questioned whether Ofsted had properly consulted schools given its judgments have such a “profound effect”. “Why is it the right time?”
The head received loud applause. But Spielman replied: “The reason it’s the right time is because children are the people who’ve had the worst deal from Covid.”
Their “lives have been put on hold” and they have been “paying the price for protecting adults, all of us here”.
She said there was “nothing unrealistic” about its approach, and that it was “absolutely right we are there looking at what children are getting.”
She replied to a later question that it was “ministers who decide whether inspections happen”, including the return of routine inspections. “I cannot decide that.”
“When the legislation is in force, we must do things the legislation requires us to do.”
One audience member said heads were “really struggling” and highlighted fears of an exodus. Another head warned he had three senior leaders who wanted to resign, and he was struggling to recruit.
Headteachers have previously told Schools Week the watchdog is not following through on its promise to consider the toll of covid on schools this term.
It comes on the same day hundreds of education figures penned an open letter to Ofsted making the same claim, and demanding reforms to stop “unnecessary stress” and rework an “insular and unaccountable” complaints process.
School leaders’ union ASCL also recently wrote to the watchdog formally requesting a change in policy to allow easier deferral of inspections. There are grounds for deferral already, but heads say the bar is “set very high”.
Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, said it was not fair to “insist that schools must be inspected when they are in crisis mode”.
The speech also saw Spielman strike a defensive tone about ramping up inspections for “outstanding” schools, saying it was the “right step”.
Some schools have not been inspected for “close to 15 years”, she added, saying it was “long time to go without checking children are getting a good deal”.
While some “outstanding” schools have already been downgraded, she said most “inadequate” and “requires improvement” schools had shown improvement in the first half of this term.