Post-Covid Ofsted ratings lift in secondary schools

Leaders say secondaries could have benefited from having more time and capacity to develop their curriculum

Leaders say secondaries could have benefited from having more time and capacity to develop their curriculum

Ofsted's chief inspector Amanda Spielman

Secondary schools are getting better Ofsted grades since the return of routine inspections, but judgments in special schools have worsened.

School leaders say secondaries could have benefited from having more time and capacity to develop their curriculum during pandemic closures, when inspections were cancelled.

While vulnerable and key worker children still attended on-site, special schools had four times more youngsters in the classroom – something leaders say left them facing a “more problematic” return to full reopening.

Secondary performance improves post-pandemic

Schools Week compared inspection management information from March 2020 with that published in March 2022.

The 2020 data covered the six months of inspections from the introduction of Ofsted’s new framework in September 2019 until the suspension following Covid. The second data covers visits conducted since routine inspection resumed in September.

The proportion of secondary schools rated ‘good’ and above increased from 63 to 81 per cent over the two periods. A similar number of inspections were completed in both periods; 355 and 379 respectively.


Primary schools were still most likely to earn the top grades, but their improvement was far less stark – rising from 80 to 85 per cent rated ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ in the two periods.

Stephen Chamberlain, the chief executive of the Active Learning Trust, said secondary schools were able to develop their curriculum during the pandemic.

Their “greater capacity” provided “an opportunity to really reflect on what they want for their curriculum”.

Further analysis from FFT Education Datalab revealed the percentage of secondary schools downgraded following section 5 inspections dropped from 32 to 25 per cent.

The improved results come after mainstream headteachers warned that Ofsted was failing to take account of the impact of Covid. 

Ofsted would not say what contributed to the uptick, but Chamberlain, a former Ofsted inspector, said outcomes would be expected to increase as a framework became more embedded.

Special schools struggle, Ofsted data suggests

In contrast, special schools suffered a decline in outcomes, with the proportion of schools rated ‘good’ or above dropping from 80 to 73 per cent.

While there were more special schools inspections conducted pre-pandemic – 129 compared with 70 – the proportion judged to be ‘outstanding’ fell from 40 to 26 per cent.

The proportion downgraded during section 5 inspections increased from 38 to 55 per cent.

Graham Quinn, the chair of Special Schools’ Voice and chief executive of the New Bridge Multi Academy Trust, said the return to normal learning post-Covid was more problematic and challenging in special schools.

“An awful lot of time” was spent ensuring pupils returned to old routines, which reduced learning curriculum time.

Ofsted said the special schools inspected “in any given year may not be typical” and it was not possible to compare special schools with other types of schools using the data.

But of the 19 special schools that received the bottom grades this year during graded inspections, 17 were criticised for their quality of education and pulled up over curriculum planning and details. 

Warren Carratt, the chief executive of the Nexus Multi-Academy Trust, said that mainstream secondaries had the most “capacity and flexibility” during Covid because of the fewer number of pupils physically attending.

Special schools had higher lockdown attendance

Department for Education attendance data shows that throughout June and July 2020, secondary schools reported between 4 and 5 per cent of pupils attending.

Special schools were meanwhile catering to 20 per cent of their cohort, mostly those with the most severe needs.

Carratt said this inhibited their capacity to move forward with curriculum development.

A Schools Week investigation last week revealed special schools also faced a capacity crisis with more pupils requiring places. 

When questioned on how such pressures would be taken into account, Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector, admitted the quality of experience children received was “the bottom line”.

“If the school was doing everything that it could, in adverse circumstances, I would absolutely expect to see a good leadership and management judgment – which is a strong signal to the rest of the world that the school is doing everything it can.”

Between September 2021 and February 2022, Ofsted granted 320 inspection deferrals as the Omicron wave caused more disruption.

But a watchdog spokesperson said schools granted deferral were inspected “as soon as appropriate” and there was “no reason” to think deferral rates influenced the pattern of outcomes this year.

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