There is much anger that Ofsted insisted on business as usual last term as the pandemic took hold once again. We need to see a more compassionate inspectorate this term and beyond, says Dr Sam Parrett.

As my deputy CEO said to me last week: “No headteacher ever looks forward to getting ‘the Ofsted call’.”

The anxiety-inducing prospect of HM Inspectorate turning up at the school gates in less than 24 hours is enough to give any school leader a sleepless night.

Such fears have been amplified with Amanda Spielman’s tough line on the continuation of inspections as we have struggled with the on-going impact of Covid-19. There has been much debate about Ofsted’s stance, particularly with the emergence of omicron variant.

So, it was with some trepidation that last term I found myself thrust into a triple Ofsted experience – from three very different perspectives.

One of the special primary schools within our multi-academy trust got “the call” on the Tuesday, the same day as my sons’ senior school was also contacted. Then, within the hour, a further education college I support as part of my role as a National Leader of Further Education was also told to expect the inspectors.

Three extremely different institutions on very different journeys, and while not directly comparable, each had its own hopes and expectations for the outcome. Most importantly, all three wanted a fair judgement at what is an incredibly tough time for us all in education.

There is absolutely no doubt that the pandemic has wreaked havoc throughout our sector. As CEO of an education group comprising a multi-campus further education college and an eight-school MAT, I have seen first-hand the enormous impact of Covid-19 on staff and students at every level.

From the obvious logistical challenges of remote learning to having to deal with major staff shortages (particularly difficult with SEMH and alternative provision schools), teaching and learning outcomes have undoubtedly been affected.

And with issues caused by digital and social poverty, an exponential rise in anxiety and mental health issues, and the inevitable impact on attendance, we are operating in a wholly different context now.

Add into the mix the tougher inspection framework, speculation that inspectors are not really taking the pandemic into account when it comes to assessing the quality of provision, and the fact that one in three requests from heads for deferrals were turned down last term (SecEd, 2021), you can’t blame colleagues for being concerned.

On top of this, Ms Spielman said on BBC Radio 4, that “cutting the proportion of ‘outstanding’ schools by half might be a more realistic starting point for the system”. With such intimidating headlines dominating the debate, how did this triple Ofsted hit play out?

Ofsted x 3

The arrival of inspectors at our trust’s special school was expected after the last visit in 2017. A recent change in leadership on top of the Covid challenges has not made for an easy few months.

However, I was confident that the high standard of care and education had been maintained, thanks to the commitment and skill of our recently appointed co-heads, the senior leadership team and dedicated staff.

The inspectors were highly knowledgeable. While they didn’t make excuses for Covid, they absolutely understood the challenges we have and continue to face. This supportive approach was not what we had necessarily been expecting, but it enabled the team to be open and frank about their experiences.

This is exactly what the Ofsted experience should be. An opportunity to showcase and demonstrate the good work we are all doing, while being able to discuss the challenges and areas for improvement. Yes, the visit was exhausting and stressful for staff, but we got through it and now the weight of worry has lifted as we set about implementing the learnings.

My hope was for a fair and balanced judgement and recognition for the people who work tirelessly to ensure outstanding care for the pupils – and I feel this is what we got.

The same was true for the college I support. Senior leaders felt that inspectors were genuinely supportive and understanding of the extraordinary context we have all been working in.

More compassion

Ultimately, the inspection experience of each school or college will be unique to them. There is no denying that the tone of a visit will often depend on the individual inspector – it is human nature that some will appear to be more supportive than others, hopefully without any pre-conceived judgements.

No-one likes to be assessed, judged and called out if things are wrong – particularly when operating in difficult circumstances. Yet the fact is that we need Ofsted to ensure that standards in our schools are maintained.

I completely understand the concerns of school leaders who don’t need the added strain of an Ofsted visit amid the pressures they are currently working under. But rather than calling for a total halt to inspections, we need Ofsted to genuinely (and publicly) recognise the very different positions that schools are finding themselves in.

Many are struggling with staff absence and illness. To have an inspection with so many staff off is neither viable nor fair, and so must therefore be an acceptable reason for deferral.

Humanity and compassion are needed, with every case assessed individually. But, where schools can be fairly inspected, they should be.

What we need is more reassurance and evidence that inspectors truly do understand the circumstances in which we are currently operating. This must then be followed through with fair, consistent and supportive visits – helping to temper the fear and anxiety that leaders and teachers naturally feel.

With a collaborative approach, we have a far better chance of reaching and maintaining high standards while ensuring that our brilliant school staff are celebrated for the amazing job they continue to do through difficult times.

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