“Serious issues” identified during lighter-touch Ofsted visits in the autumn could result in “immediate action”, the watchdog has said.
The inspectorate promised its new programme of visits, which will start in September and target mostly ‘inadequate’ schools, will be collaborative, and not about “passing judgment”.
A letter setting out the outcome of discussions over back-to-school progress, blended learning and safeguarding with schools will be published following the visits, as opposed to the usual inspection report and grade.
Asked if the visits could turn into full inspections, an Ofsted spokesperson said: “The autumn visits aren’t inspections, but clearly we could not ignore the most serious issues, such as safeguarding concerns, if they arose.
“These would be identified in the published letter and taken into account at the school’s next inspection, or, if they required immediate action, they would be referred to the appropriate authority.”
Ofsted will pilot its new programme of “visits” in September before they are rolled out in October, with all ‘inadequate’ schools visited alongside a “sample” of others.
The watchdog said the visits, which will check how schools are dealing with welcoming all their pupils back, will mostly target ‘inadequate’ providers because they “might need the help the most”.
When challenged on this, Chris Jones, Ofsted’s director of corporate strategy, said: “The visits are intended to be helpful, and so we want to visit the schools that might need the most help. As well as a whole range of others.”
Another criticism levelled at the watchdog was over the level of expertise that inspectors can provide for schools recovering from a pandemic.
Jones added Ofsted’s aim was to collate “as much research as we can for inspector training” so they can “spread good practice in almost real time so everyone can learn as we go”.
Rather than a grade or normal report, a “brief” letter will be published explaining the outcome of discussions with school leaders so parents can understand what steps are being taken.
Ofsted pledged this will allow inspectors to provide “appropriate challenge” to school leaders, without “passing judgment”.
Findings will also be used to report on the national back-to-school picture. Inspectors will also look at blended learning and safeguarding.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said the visits were about “constructive conversation – we’re not trying to catch schools out”.
But Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Following years of high stakes accountability, it is entirely understandable why some school leaders will greet this news with a fair degree of trepidation.”
Details of visits will be based around “professional conversations” that identify barriers schools are facing in all pupils returning, how children are settling back in behaviour-wise, and how any wellbeing issues are being addressed.
Visits will also look at how leaders ensure pupils resume learning their curriculum, including any remote education where necessary.
Inspectors won’t use the education inspection framework, but an operational note will be published in September with further details.
Schools will get up to a day’s notice of a visit.
Ofsted said it would be having further conversations with unions about the visits and will publish more details as appropriate.
Brook said the “biggest threat to good decision making from government is lack of insight”.
“If these visits are genuinely about working collaboratively to gather on the ground intelligence, then Ofsted could potentially help fill in the blanks and prompt the government to act swiftly in response.”
Full inspections are planned to return in January, but Ofsted said the date will be “kept under review”.