No answers in Ofsted briefing

Commentary on Ofsted's COVID-19 series: briefing on schools, September 2020

By Martin Hodge, Senior Professional Officer (Policy), and Rob Jaques, Professional Officer

On 17 March 2020, all routine inspections in England were suspended due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. As part of its phased return to routine inspection, Ofsted is carrying out 'interim visits' to schools during the autumn term 2020. Before beginning these visits, it piloted its approach. Its briefing note COVID-19 series: briefing on schools, September 2020 reports on 121 pilot visits made between 14 and 18 September. The schools volunteered to take part in the pilot visits, "so the picture presented here may not be representative". This was Ofsted's first briefing note, and it will publish more through the term.

Concerns

Voice has concerns that this briefing from Ofsted does not answer any questions – and, as the report itself makes clear, this is too small a sample from which to draw any conclusions.  Yet it states that the “briefing answers four broad questions based on evidence from the visits” – which it does not and cannot. All it does do is report the findings from an incidental sample of schools which volunteered to participate.

Between 14 and 18 September, 121 schools were ‘visited’ – out of 32,770 schools in England – meaning that Ofsted visited just 0.37% of schools. (3,714 are nurseries or early-learning centres, 20,832 are primary schools, 19 are middle schools and 4,188 are secondary schools. There are 2,408 independent schools, 1,257 special schools and 352 pupil referral units (PRUs).)

Varying the curriculum and remote learning

The report talks about schools varying from the curriculum, and this is precisely the 'freedom' sold to academies and free schools – they are allowed to set their own curriculum and to adjust it as necessary.  Not only that, but also, they “tended to be concentrating on the aspects they thought were the most urgent priority for their pupils, such as language and communication”.  Which we know is precisely what schools need to be doing to restore children back into learners.

The report states that many schools had varied their curriculum because it would be difficult to deliver through an online or remote medium – this is profoundly sensible and, notwithstanding the amount of effort this required, entirely appropriate for both teacher and learner. 

Some parents reported “how difficult it was for their pupils to complete work at home, for example, because of a lack of space” or use of shared equipment, such as laptops.  It is these challenges – outside of a school’s control – that meant that pupils missed out on much of their learning last term.

As Voice had advised, “a few schools reported safety concerns about the use of live lessons, such as pupils being alone in a room while the lesson was taking place, and had chosen not to use live teaching because of these concerns”.

Many schools had continued to work “with families during the summer term, which had led to more trust in the school”, and since the beginning of the Autumn term, schools have been encouraged to curate a “recovery” curriculum, including well-being and mental-health support – deviating from the normal curriculum where necessary for the benefit of their pupils.

Given that “leaders frequently talked about the challenges they had faced in getting remote education up and running at the start of the national lockdown in March to enable all pupils to carry on learning”, we can’t help but wonder if, rather than pursuing largely anecdotal evidence in this way, Ofsted should put its considerable resources into helping schools adapt to a blended learning model.

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