The leader of the ASCL headteachers’ union has joined calls for the government to immediately suspend Ofsted inspections, as schools’ response to the coronavirus is ramped up.
Geoff Barton told the union’s annual conference in Birmingham today that he “calling on the government to call a halt to all routine inspections”, amid concerns that they will not present a fair reflection of schools during the outbreak, and will distract headteachers from dealing with the impact of the disease.
He said it “simply cannot be right that schools and colleges are judged in a high stakes manner in these extraordinary circumstances at all”.
It comes after Ofsted updated its guidance on inspection deferral, setting out how inspectors will carry out risk assessments with heads before all inspections, to give leaders “the opportunity to inform Ofsted about any current coronavirus impact on their provision”.
“Using this information, we will make an assessment and a deferral decision, as appropriate. When inspections go ahead, inspectors will be sensitive to increases in user absence or absence of key staff, and will reflect this in the inspection report.”
Ofsted has faced criticism for its response to the outbreak, after 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.
Barton told journalists yesterday that the government may need to suspend Ofsted inspections and ignore school attendance and performance data as coronavirus spreads.
Today he said the action on inspections needed to happen now.
“At this time of national emergency, schools and colleges are devoting all of their time and all of their energies and all of their resources to keeping calm, to carrying on,” he said.
“They are preparing contingency plans in the event of closures. And they are doing this at a time of unprecedented pressure with staff often away and self isolating in greater numbers all the time.”
He said it was “not a time for business as usual. It’s not a time for business as usual for Ofsted”.
“This is a time for the inspectorate to show that it understands the extraordinary pressures on schools and colleges and for the government to suspend all inspections during this crisis.
“We acknowledge that Ofsted has taken a step in the right direction by accepting that the current situation may be a reason for an inspection to be deferred.
“However, it has not gone far enough. A case by case basis is not good enough.”
Barton said the only caveat would be “if there are specific safeguarding concerns in an educational setting which Ofsted must obviously check”.
“Aside from this scenario, however, we are calling on the government to call a halt to all routine inspections, to enable schools and colleges in a national mission to focus on supporting their students.”
Barton said the issue would be raised directly with Ofsted national director of education Sean Harford, who is appearing this afternoon, and with Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, at a meeting on Monday.
Ofsted’s response criticised
The general secretary also criticised Ofsted’s response yesterday, saying he understood why headteachers “felt cross” about the original tweet pledging business as usual.
“I think that will gave felt tin-eared to people who are facing unprecedented circumstances in their schools,” he said.
He also said the line in the guidance about headteacher deaths was “insensitive”, and probably the result of Ofsted having “rushed out” updated guidance.
“I think we would take a generous view that lots of us are having to do things quickly,” he said.
However, Barton also questioned why the line about headteacher deaths was in the deferral guidance in the first place.
“I think it’s drawn our attention to a sub-clause most of us didn’t know about,” he said, adding it was “hard to imagine” how inspections would feel for schools that had just lost a head.
“That in itself does feel misguided, I think.”
Chris Jones, Ofsted’s director of corporate strategy, has apologised for the way the issue had been handled last night.
“We’ve updated our guidance on inspection deferrals tonight,” he tweeted. “We want to ensure that we are able to defer inspections for any schools impacted by Covid-19.
“he language here is historic and needs to be changed, which we will. I’m sorry for any distress caused.”