Ministers are considering new proposals from Ofsted for inspections to restart again this January, but without grades being issued.
Full inspections have been paused since the outbreak of coronavirus back in March but are scheduled to start up again in January.
There has been sustained pressure from unions to delay the restart, which has been amplified following the announcement of a second lockdown.
Schools Week understands Department for Education officials met with Ofsted this week to consider plans. One of the proposals on the table is for inspections to restart in January, but for them to be more akin to a monitoring visit – which wouldn’t result in a grade for the school.
This suggestion has been put forward in recognition of the disruption schools are already facing in light of the pandemic and has been pitched somewhere between full inspections and the “visits” that have been carried out this autumn. But the final decision now rests with ministers.
It would not resolve any issues simply to remove grades and go ahead with routine inspections
However Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it is “hard to see what this would achieve, other than to give the inspectorate something to do”.
He said inspections should not resume in January because “schools have too many plates to spin already, managing Covid protocols and catch-up support”. He also raised the “health risks of having inspectors going in and out of schools when we need to minimise contacts” and that “routine inspections would be meaningless with so many pupils and staff having to intermittently self-isolate”.
“It would not resolve any of these issues simply to remove grades and go ahead with routine inspections anyway,” he added.
“The government and Ofsted would best support schools by relieving them of the burden of an accountability system that is not appropriate for the circumstances of a national emergency and allowing them to get on with the challenging task at hand.”
Since September the inspectorate has been visiting schools in more informal “visits” that focus on issues such as the return to full education, how pupils have picked up the curriculum and preparedness for remote learning.
Ofsted announced via Twitter on Monday evening that these visits would be carried out remotely during the national lockdown – which started today and is due to end on December 2.
It is understood the proposals tabled by Ofsted would not form a new type of inspection but would fall under its existing powers set out under section 8 of the Education Act 2005.
Monitoring inspections are usually performed at schools previously judged ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ to assess progress and to encourage improvement.
While monitoring visits do result in a published report, such a visit does not indicate a grade nor carry out learner, employer, parent/carer or staff surveys.
However, monitoring visits do provide progress judgments of ‘insufficient progress’, ‘reasonable progress’ or ‘significant progress’.
An Ofsted spokesperson said: “We’re carefully considering how we return to inspection; the timing remains under review, as does the form any inspection would take.”
But Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary for the NEU, said the inspections were “the very last thing that should be on schools’ minds as they get through a very challenging year”.
On Wednesday, former education secretary Baroness Estelle Morris questioned the role Ofsted should be playing in light of the pandemic during an online event hosted by the NAHT union.
Morris said she feared Ofsted did not have “the ability to change” the role they perform within the sector and while the government did need to gather information on best practices and where schools need extra help she was “not convinced this year that Ofsted are the organisation for that”.
She said: “I wish I could say that Ofsted is the type of organisation that can change and meet those needs in this present year but my thinking at the moment is it can’t do that so it should concentrate on what happens after this.”
Morris also called the return to inspection in January “nonsense” and said the government should postpone such action until the next academic year.