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Should Ofsted Inspect Schools’ Virtual Provision During the Lockdown?

First of all, let me preface this with a reminder that no routine school inspections have taken place during the lockdown. In fact, Ofsted announced fairly early on that standard inspections would be suspended until further notice. However, the big concern shared by many headteachers is, once inspections are back, how will Ofsted evaluate and inspect schools’ virtual provision during the lockdown?

Will this period of remote teaching and learning be considered during future inspections? Or will it be overlooked?

The latest DfE guidance states that:

“There are no plans to re-start routine school inspections this term. We continue to work closely with HM Chief Inspector and the sector, and will only re-start routine inspection when it is appropriate to do so.”

However, understandably, Headteachers are still worried about what inspections might look like and what they might cover. More specifically, the worry centres around how Ofsted will evaluate their virtual provision while schools have been (largely) shut during the pandemic.

Under Pressure to Provide

A bit of context. As soon as the lockdown was announced, Headteachers and teachers found themselves with the unenviable task of having to figure out how to effectively provide for their students for an, as then, undefined period of time. Staff worked tirelessly to make provisions for pupils who were required to continue attending school; those children regarded as vulnerable as well as those of key workers.

However, they felt they couldn’t just abandon those at home.

Initially, many scrambled to put together work packs to send to pupils’ homes, but the travel, logistics, cost, and postage was unsustainable. Then teachers started looking at virtual learning. They signed up for and started learning about using various online platforms so they could continue teaching pupils. They looked for existing online packages they could access for free or purchase so that pupils did not miss out on their education.

All of it was experimentation. None of it could immediately replace the provision pupils were experiencing at school before the lockdown. But it shone a light on teachers and their relentless dedication to their students. In the face of adversity, teachers continued to go above and beyond.

Negotiating an Ever-Changing Landscape

Teachers are no strangers to having to deal with seismic shifts in education policy, constantly evolving curricula and new approaches to pedagogy. However, the uncertainty and constantly changing landscape during the coronavirus pandemic proved an especially tough landscape for teachers to negotiate.

During this period, the DfE’s starting position was that schools were not required to teach online. However, this quickly changed as they began sharing links to various platforms that schools could access for online learning. This was then swiftly followed by detailed DfE guidance on remote education practice, including how to keep children safe while providing online learning. The educational landscape was changing daily, and teachers were expected to keep up.

School staff were expected to read the various case studies published by the DfE to better understand how schools were already delivering online learning successfully elsewhere, and find ways to emulate this.

Of course, this was all easier said than done. Ultimately, few schools had the budget or resources to effectively transfer all teaching and learning online. To compound this further, many students and their families also lacked the money and resources to take their education online and work effectively from home. Teachers and students found themselves in a lose-lose situation.

That was until finally, the DfE provided funding to buy laptops, tablets, and dongles for internet access. The aim was to ensure that underprivileged children and young people who were unable to access these resources from anywhere other than their school, were not further disadvantaged. Needless to say, this went some way towards levelling the playing field a little for these students. But the problem of what to deliver and how best to do so still remained for schools to unpick.

Importantly though, in all their guidance, the DfE has continued to insist that:

“no school will be penalised if they are unable to offer a broad and balanced curriculum to their pupils during this period.”

Surely, this will be of some comfort to school leaders?

Concerns About Future Inspections

So, what concerns do Headteachers have about future inspections? More importantly, when will inspections restart? And, when they do, will Ofsted inspect their virtual provision?

On 3rd May, speaking on Sky News, Amanda Spielman made it clear that Ofsted has no mandate to inspect the remote work that schools are setting because government guidance makes it clear that schools are not required to teach online.

On BBC Radio 4, on 11th June, when asked about how much Ofsted is scrutinising the extensive online learning taking place, Amanda Spielman reiterated that routine inspections were suspended so there was no scrutiny. She did, however, add that the DfE have not yet set standards or expectations regarding online learning and that they should do this. The suggestion, it seems, is that as soon as those expectations are made clear, it will be possible for Ofsted to start assessing this provision.

I hope that Amanda Spielman was not being literal when she said Ofsted will start assessing schools' online provision as soon as the DfE gives clear expectations about the minimum requirements.

This is because schools themselves will also be hearing those expectations for the first time when they are announced. As such, school leaders will need time to review what they have already been doing against those expectations before bringing their online provision up to the expected standard.

I certainly hope that these future inspections will take into account the DfE’s position that:

“no school will be penalised if they are unable to offer a broad and balanced curriculum to their pupils during this period.”

I also hope that when inspections begin again, all comments or evaluations about schools’ provision during the lockdown are not taken into account when making judgments and awarding inspection grades.

The fear is that, once again, no matter how hard schools work in the face of untold adversity, they always end up as the whipping boys of the media, politicians, and policy-makers, who are quick to forget the efforts and sacrifices many have made to keep our children safe, educated and, in many instances, fed and looked after.

Let’s not forget the context.

Let’s not forget who was there when they were needed the most, by the most in need.

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