The loudest voices have called for Ofsted to suspend full inspections during the Covid crisis. But for a section of the schools sector, it’s the exact opposite leaders want. Jess Staufenberg finds out more…

This week’s news of another six months of tighter lockdown restrictions has unsurprisingly reignited calls for Ofsted to call off the planned resumption of inspections from January.

It’s a debate that has raged since inspections were abandoned in July because of the pandemic, and heightened amid plans for new “visits” this autumn.

One of the main concerns over the latter is plans to publish an “outcome letter” which union leaders warn would “feel like an inspection report” and be particularly tough on ‘inadequate’ graded schools.

But not always heard amid the shouting are some leaders of such schools. Many have told Schools Week that the biggest problem with the outcome letter is that it’s not a full inspection report – they want both barrels of Ofsted’s full judgment.

 

‘The wrong score on the door’

The power of an Ofsted judgment to directly impact, as well as mirror, school turnaround efforts was stressed across the board by leaders with a low Ofsted label hanging over them.

We’ve still got the badge of special measures over the door

Graeme Napier, principal at Bexleyheath Academy in Kent, joined the school last year after it was graded ‘inadequate’ in 2018, hot on the heels of a ‘requires improvement’ grade two years before. The last report for the school, which is under the Academies Enterprise Trust, is bleak: poor pupil behaviour, low expectations and low staff morale. Despite a positive monitoring visit in December last year, Napier says written comments are not enough for parents. “We’ve still got the badge of special measures over the door”.

Now he expects only about 100 year 7 pupils for next September where there should be 330. Overall, Napier reckons he is missing about 600 pupils over three year groups: “The financial implications for a school this big are huge.”

Ofsted’s plans for full inspections in January do little to reassure Napier and others like him, since parents must choose secondary schools by October 31. “Parents and carers will be applying to schools over the next 45 days so even if our Ofsted rating changed in January, it will be too late for us.”

Peter Bloomfield

That’s despite encouraging comments in the latest monitoring report, including that “leaders’ actions to improve pupils’ behaviour […] have transformed the learning environment of the academy”.

Another principal staring down an ‘inadequate’ grade is Peter Bloomfield of Great Yarmouth Primary Academy in Norfolk, part of the Inspiration Trust. The grade, issued in 2018, prompted the government to issue a ‘minded to terminate’ notice soon after unless “rapid and sustained improvement” was achieved. With the stakes so high, Bloomfield, who arrived at the school in 2019, wants a full inspection as soon as possible.

“We had a really good relationship with Ofsted until lockdown, with that constant professional dialogue back and forth. So having a long break without that dialogue can feel like momentum is stalling.”

The longer it stays with that label, the less it’s a turnaround school

The longer a new Ofsted outcome takes to achieve, the less staff can feel rapid improvement is being made, Bloomfield explains. “It’s exciting for staff to work in a turnaround school, but the longer it stays with that label, the less it’s a turnaround school. It feels less transformative.” Like Napier, Bloomfield has signed up to be in Ofsted’s visits pilot in September before they begin properly next month, just to see inspectors face to face. But for schools in the pilot, no outcome letter is published and Bloomfield is clear; only a full section 5 inspection can properly legitimise the school’s improvements.

Nick Kandola

Another school threatened with termination is Khalsa Secondary Academy, a Sikh ethos school in Buckinghamshire. Having been ‘good’ in 2017, it was plunged into special measures in December 2019 for, among other issues, not following “essential safeguarding procedures”. The school has successfully blocked rebrokerage to another trust for now, and was due to be inspected this month. Nick Kandola, chief executive of Khalsa Academies Trust, claimed the poor rating was “essentially an administrative issue”.

While this is contested by Ofsted, he said: “We just wish Ofsted would look to make exceptions where they’re due. If they can visit schools in September and October, why not carry out a monitoring visit if we want it?”

It’s not only ‘inadequate’ schools that are affected. In 2017 the Pingle Academy joined the de Ferrers Trust, which has seven schools across Staffordshire and Derbyshire, thereby officially wiping its previous ‘requires improvement’ grade. But the trust’s chief executive, Ian McNeilly, says the fact the school has not been reinspected five years later impacts the local perception. “School leaders are really keen to get that external validation for the community.

They’ve worked so hard for so long, they were absolutely ready for an inspection, and then lockdown came. They are so disappointed.”

Ian McNeilly

McNeilly, who is a former Ofsted inspector, adds the lack of reinspection could also slow the trust’s plans for growth. “The DfE tend to use quite basic metrics for allowing you to grow. We are in a much better position than this Ofsted grade reflects. I absolutely know it has the wrong score on the door.”

For other leaders, a full inspection would allow them to demonstrate that tougher days are behind them. Headteacher Nichola Smith is keen to prove she and her team have moved Meadstead Primary Academy in Barnsley on from a 2019 inspection which left the school with a ‘good’ in three areas and ‘requires improvement’ in two areas, but RI overall. “I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t wait to have a section 5 inspection. The stigma of RI doesn’t reflect us.” Not knowing when a full inspection might happen at the school, which is part of the Academies Enterprise Trust, is frustrating for a team that has come through one difficult experience already.

Maryn Oliver

Vague inspection windows are also on the mind of Martyn Oliver, chief executive at Outwood Grange Academies Trust in the north of England. “It would be good to have a sense from Ofsted what the plan is, so that we’re not permanently waiting for an inspection.” The trust, which has 33 schools, has one ‘requires improvement’ school – Outwood Academy Adwick. It also has a number of ‘outstanding’ schools due for re-inspection, with the oldest report from 2012. Oliver reckons the trust was due about 15 inspections when lockdown happened. “The problem is now Ofsted are going to be massively backed up, so one can only presume they can’t do all those inspections in January. Are they going to push ‘outstanding’ judgments down the line?” Without clarity, Oliver adds it will be “more difficult to make sure staff don’t feel additionally anxious”.

 

‘Let us request an inspection’

Most school leaders who spoke to Schools Week want Ofsted to consider requests for a full inspection before January; Smith, Napier, Bloomfield and McNeilly all call for this. Oliver, meanwhile, asks for clear communication from Ofsted about the order in which differently graded schools will be prioritised for inspection.

What’s striking is several leaders don’t support the argument made by unions that schools can’t be inspected fairly during Covid. As Bloomfield puts it: “Surely the purpose of inspection is to judge the quality of provision. Whether schools are operating normally or with some remote working, it shouldn’t matter.”

Gemma Simon

Napier adds: “The Covid measures shouldn’t be a concern, because inspectors should always take the context of the school into account.”

But not all school leaders want a full inspection just yet. Gemma Simon, the new principal of Tamworth Enterprise College near Birmingham, is currently stuck with a negative section 8 monitoring report that predates her arrival. Simon wants “to request a non-judgmental visit that gives written comments. That would give schools like mine positive feedback that can then be shared with staff and parents.”

 

Divided opinion

Ofsted face a tricky balance. When asked about requests for inspections, a spokesperson said “plans for how inspections should be rolled out” are under review, adding “at the appropriate time we will tell school leaders and teachers about these plans before we resume full inspections”.

This might leave them in an even worse situation

Representative bodies are also cautious. Steve Rollett, deputy chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, points out that “if a school was to be inspected and the judgment didn’t improve, they might be left with a sense that the context of Covid-19 was to blame – and this might leave them in an even worse situation”.

Nick Brook, deputy director of NAHT, strikes a similar note, warning that although it makes sense for Ofsted to consider prioritising certain schools when full inspections return, this year schools have “far more important matters to be dealing with”.

But Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, has rallied behind schools stuck with poor grades. She says that suspending inspections was the right decision, but it has “left uncertainty and frustration” for many schools.

“We think there’s a good argument for Ofsted to consider some sort of mechanism to inspect schools which would like to receive an inspection sooner rather than later – as an exception to the general approach.”