Coronavirus: Spielman to preside over inspection deferral decisions

The chief inspector of schools will personally sign off any decision not to defer Ofsted inspections of schools affected by coronavirus, it has been announced.

Sean Harford, the watchdog’s national director of education, told the ASCL conference today that Ofsted will “look very favourably” on any requests for deferral as a result of coronavirus.

Requests for deferrals in connection with the disease will as usual be submitted via lead inspectors to Ofsted regional directors, but Harford said his boss Amanda Spielman will be “personally involved in any decision not to defer in these circumstances”.

He also said he expected “further measures to be taken by government in the coming days and weeks”, and said Ofsted “will continue to work with them”.

The government is under pressure to halt all inspections during the pandemic, so headteachers can focus on responding to the crisis. In the meantime, Ofsted has reissued its guidance on inspection deferrals to confirm that effects of coronavirus qualify as an “exceptional circumstance”.

Speaking to the press following his speech, Harford sought to reassure heads that Ofsted was “very open” to requests linked with coronavirus for deferral, and said a postponement had already been granted in at least one instance.

“The reason we changed the [deferral] policy, it was because there was a phrase in it that was ‘exceptional circumstances’, and I think some of the uncertainty was [over what we were] going to class as an exceptional circumstance,” he said.

“In business as usual, it is obviously set up to cover a wide range of things, but we wanted to make sure that people know that we firmly, front-and-centre believe that these are exceptional circumstances, that if a school is going through the kind of thinking, the worries, children being off, staff off, we want them to know that we really are listening to that.

“And hence, if that request comes through via the inspector and goes through to those regional desks, if it is knocked back, Amanda will have personally signed that knock-back off. That’s the seriousness with which we’re listening to this.”

According to Harford, Ofsted will be providing evidence on the number of deferrals to the government “day by day”.

The watchdog has faced substantial criticism for its response to the spread of the disease, following a series of communications problems on Friday.

The watchdog initially tweeted that it would continue with “business as usual”. As Schools Week revealed yesterday, the watchdog then quickly updated its guidance, but then had to reissue it without a previous (and long-standing) reference to potential headteacher deaths, which was seen as insensitive.

But Harford today denied the tweet was “tin-eared”, as ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton described it this morning.

“The government advice, even on Thursday when we moved into delay, was that the country is keeping going. Schools are playing an absolutely vital part in that,” he said.

“Now clearly we aren’t in a position anyway to say we’re ceasing inspections. That’s something for the government to decide and it would require legislative change to do that, so the fact is it is business as usual.”

The Ofsted director also addressed criticism of the line about headteacher deaths in the guidance, which he said had been copied over when old guidance last reviewed in 2016 was repurposed to clarify Ofsted’s position on coronavirus.

“We wanted to make sure schools got this message really quickly,” said Harford, emphasising that “the most important thing was that coronavirus bit was in there”.

He also defended the inclusion of the line in old guidance, but would not say whether it would be added back in after the crisis is over.

“We need to remember that that policy covers all of our inspections, through from chidminders through daycare nurseries and the PVI sector, through maintained schools, academies all the way through to the prison inspections and further education and skills. It has to cover a wide range of potential issues.

“I don’t know of a single instance [since] we’ve had that policy in place when there has been the recent death of a headteacher, deputy headteacher or child where we have gone ahead with the inspection when that has been raised.”