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Ofsted inspections from January 2021 – guidance for members

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Introduction

On 6 January 2021, the secretary of state announced that the minimum standards for remote learning would be ‘strengthened’ and that they ‘…will be enforced by Ofsted’.

He went on to say where parents ‘…feel their school is not providing suitable remote education’  they should first raise their concerns with the head teacher or teacher, and ‘failing that report the matter to Ofsted… Ofsted will inspect schools of any grade where it has concerns about the quality of remote education being provided’.

NAHT immediately strongly opposed this unhelpful and divisive approach, and we are continuing to challenge this on behalf of our members.

Before the current ‘lockdown’ Ofsted had already announced that it intends to conduct section 8 monitoring inspections of ‘inadequate schools’, and some schools judged as ‘requires improvement’.  NAHT understands that Ofsted intends to push ahead with these monitoring inspections despite the new ‘lockdown’.

On 12 January, Ofsted confirmed that inspections will be conducted remotely until after February half term.  Ofsted may undertake an on-site inspection in response to serious concerns about a school, such as the safety of pupils or staff.

This guide sets out answers to practical questions about:

  • How Ofsted intends to inspect from January 2021
  • Ofsted’s powers to inspect schools’ remote learning provision in response to complaints about schools
  • Steps that schools can take in circumstances where a deferral is appropriate
  • Section 8 monitoring inspections from January 2021

This advice replaces previous guidance published just before Christmas.

 

1.    How will Ofsted inspect from January 2021?

  • Routine (section 5) inspections of all schools remain suspended for the whole of the spring term, at least.
  • No further section 8 ‘interim visits’ will take place (as occurred in the autumn term).
  • From January 2021, Ofsted will undertake section 8 monitoring inspections in some schools. These inspections will be conducted remotely until after February half term.
  • Ofsted may also use s8 powers to conduct ‘no formal designation’ inspections of schools where serious concerns have arisen.[1]  This could include inspections of schools where there are serious concerns about the provision of remote learning. These inspections will be conducted remotely until after February half term.

     

[1] Typically, NFD inspections are in response to a qualifying complaint(s) that gives rise to concerns about the safety of pupils and staff, or where there may be a breakdown in leadership and management of a school.

 

2.   Ofsted’s powers to inspect remote learning provision


What are the remote learning requirements for schools?

Schools have a legal duty to provide immediate access to remote education to pupils who are required to stay at home due to local or national restrictions.

 

How many hours of remote learning should schools provide?

The DfE has issued guidance on the number of hours of remote learning that should be provided each day, by phase.

The guidance states that, remote education should be ‘equivalent to the core teaching pupils would receive in school and will include both recorded or live directed teaching time’. And, as a minimum, the amount of remote education provided should be for Key Stage 1: 3 hours a day on average across the cohort, with less for younger children; Key Stage 2: 4 hours a day; and Key Stages 3 and 4: 5 hours a day.

Schools are required to ‘have regard’ to this guidance. This means that schools must take into account the guidance and the ‘expectations’ it sets in deciding what remote education to provide.

However, there is no strict legal obligation as to the quantity or quality of remote education to be provided.

 

What does NAHT advise?

Members should:

  • review their remote learning offer against the expectations set out in the DfE guidance
  • take into account whether it is possible to meet those expectations in light of the range of circumstances facing schools at the current time: these may include, for example:
        o levels of staff absence
       o the number of pupils attending onsite provision
       o problems in offering remote access to pupils without                       devices or internet connection
  • act where a school is not able to provide the minimum recommendation, by writing to parents outlining what provision it is making and explaining why it is not possible to provide the relevant minimum amount.

 


Do all lessons have to be recorded or live directed teaching?

No.  School leaders and staff will want to make a professional judgement about the amount of recorded or live directed teaching within their overall remote learning offer.  The DfE’s expectation is that a school’s remote education offer will include ‘recorded or live directed teaching’.  This does not exclude other methods of remote learning.

In fact, Ofsted has recently made it clear that ‘live lessons aren’t always best’, stating “Some think that a live lesson is the ‘gold standard’ of remote education. This isn’t necessarily the case. 

Ofsted’s brief report What’s working well in remote education gives its definitions, although there no broad or accepted consensus on these matters at this time.

  • Remote education: a broad term encompassing any learning that happens outside of the classroom, with the teacher not present in the same location as the pupils.
  • Digital remote education often known as online learning, this is remote learning delivered through digital technologies.
  • Blended learning: a mix of face-to-face and remote methods. An example would be the ‘flipped classroom’, where main input happens remotely (for example through video), while practice and tutoring happen in class.
  • Synchronous education: this is live; asynchronous education is when the material is prepared by the teacher and accessed by the pupil at a later date

The report emphasises that remote education is a means, rather than an end, to delivering the curriculum and that the quality of teaching is more important than how lessons are delivered.  While digital learning and live lessons can be very powerful tools, they are not the only or the best ways to deliver remote learning or provide feedback to pupils.

NAHT’s view is that school leaders are best placed to determine the blend of remote learning activities that are most suitable for their school’s phase, circumstances and context. 


What powers does Ofsted have to investigate complaints about remote learning?

Ofsted’s powers to investigate complaints about schools are set out at section 11A-11C of the Education Act 2005.

Ofsted’s guidance is clear that before complaining to Ofsted parents should:

  • contact the school to discuss the issue
  • follow all steps in the school’s complaints procedure. 

This is a statutory requirement, although in very serious cases the chief inspector may waive the need for a complaint to meet these qualifying criteria.  Ofsted is clear that it has no powers to: mediate, respond to, resolve or adjudicate complaints or disputes about individual pupils; investigate specific incidents; judge how well a school responded to a complaint; or consider complaints where there are other established legal routes (for example, complaints about admissions, exclusions or providing education for individual pupils with special educational needs.

Ofsted does have powers to investigate what are known as ‘qualifying complaints’ which must be made in writing. 

The definition of a ‘qualifying complaint’ is set out in regulations[2], and includes complaints about the quality of education provided by a school and how far a school meets the needs of the range of pupils at that school.  A complaint about remote learning could be deemed to be a qualifying complaint, if it raises such concerns.  In such a case Ofsted might choose to investigate the complaint using their existing complaints procedure (see below). However, a single complaint about an individual pupil is unlikely to result in an inspection. 

 [2] The Education (Investigation of Parents’ complaints)(England) Regulations 2007 (SI 2007/1089) define the ‘prescribed description’ for a qualifying complaint as being about one or more of the following areas: the quality of the education provided in the school; how far the education provided in the school meets the needs of the range of pupils at the school; the educational standards achieved in the school; the quality of the leadership in and management of the school, including whether the financial resources made available to the school are managed effectively; the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of the pupils at the school; the contribution made by the school to the well-being of those pupils.


What should Ofsted do when it receives a parental complaint about remote learning?

Where Ofsted receives a complaint from a parent (or member of the public) it should determine whether the complaint is a ‘qualifying complaint’ (see above and the footnote below).  The first steps are to check whether a complainant has first used the school’s local complaints procedures, and that it is not is about an individual matter.  If the complaint qualifies under the regulations Ofsted will decide whether to: take no action; retain the complaint for the inspectors’ information at the next inspection of the school; or investigate the complaint.  Ofsted informs individual schools when a qualifying complaint is received.

Ofsted is likely to adopt a ‘high bar’ for investigations.  Broadly speaking NAHT would expect that Ofsted will only inspect where there are serious concerns that a school’s overall remote education provision falls well below the requirements set by the government.

An investigation might involve a telephone call to the school by an HMI or, more exceptionally, a section 8 no formal designation (NFD) inspection which would focus on the issues raised by the complaint.  Section 8 inspections do not result in a change to a school’s overall Ofsted grade.

Of course, in very rare instances where an inspection uncovered serious issues, such as concerns about the safety of pupils or staff, or a breakdown in leadership and management, the inspection might be ‘converted’ to a full section 5 inspection.

Ofsted may not investigate where other statutory routes of redress exist[3] – for example, admissions or individual exclusions.

NAHT strongly believes that there is no reason for Ofsted to deviate from its existing complaints about schools policy and procedures - we will strongly challenge any attempts to do so.

[3] These are set out in legislation as ‘prescribed exceptions’.


What will happen if I am inspected?

If an inspection is deemed necessary by Ofsted to investigate a school’s remote education provision as a result of a complaint, NAHT would expect that a school will receive the usual half-day notice of inspection and that the inspector would engage the head teacher in a detailed conversation about the proposed plan for inspection activity.  Inspection activity should be focused on the substance of the complaint.

The initial telephone planning conversation should include discussion of the school’s circumstances and context. Ofsted has announced that inspections will be conducted remotely until after February half term.

NAHT expects inspectors to strictly adhere to the school’s Covid risk assessment to mitigate the risk of an inspector acting as a vector of transmission to the school community.  This will necessarily affect the viability of some inspection activities to prevent, for example, breaching ‘bubbles’.

NAHT would expect all inspection activity to take account of operational pressures created by, for example, delivering concurrent remote and onsite education, or the impact of staff absence.  An inspection should not put at risk the operational viability of a school.

See the section below for more advice on exploring the circumstances and rationale for a remote or virtual inspection; and also, section 3 on requesting a deferral.

 

Is there a published framework or criteria against which inspectors will evaluate the remote learning offer in our school?

Other than Ofsted’s report What’s working well in remote education and DfE’s guidance, NAHT is currently not aware of any remote learning framework, criteria or grade descriptors for inspectors.  We have already raised serious concerns about how any investigation could be fair or consistent in the absence of such a framework. We have also raised serious concerns about inspectors’ abilities and expertise in making such judgements where there is little evidence or consensus about what constitutes effective remote provision.


What should I do if I receive a phone call notifying me that my school is going to be inspected?

Ofsted has announced that inspections will be conducted remotely until after February half term

It is still unclear precisely how Ofsted will ‘inspect’ a school’s remote learning offer (see below). However, Ofsted’s operational note on monitoring inspections from January 2021 states: ‘The lead inspector’s initial call with the school will include a discussion of the relevant COVID-19 restrictions, how inspectors can work effectively within the protective measures leaders have in place.’

The phone call is an opportunity to explain the context, circumstances, restrictions and measures in force in your school and set out how that might affect an inspector’s work. 

NAHT suggests that you explain:

  • staffing levels, numbers shielding or absent through illness, including TA and support staff cover and any particular circumstances that have restricted their ability to provide remote education
  • any rota systems, off-site arrangements for staff
  • pressures on specific areas of the school, including, for example, leadership
  • changes to the curriculum that are a result of maintaining Covid measures
  • the number of pupils working remotely versus numbers onsite and operational pressures this is creating
  • restrictions on entry to, and movement within, the school site
  • your remote learning offer; your rationale for its design within your school; and the adaptations and organisational change that have been necessary according to your school’s circumstances and context.

NAHT expects that inspectors will work flexibly to take account of schools’ individual circumstances and contexts.

It is likely that some onsite activities, such as lesson visits, book trawls, movement around the site and face to face discussions with staff may need to be replaced by remote activities.  In some cases, it may not be appropriate for inspectors to be on site at all.

This is the right time to:

  • explain that limitations on inspection activity that result from your risk assessment and covid-secure measures; for example, inspectors may not be able to visit classrooms or access various parts of the school in order to maintain ‘bubbles for staff and pupils; or they may be limited to a single ventilated space within the school, using Teams or other meeting tools to hold discussions.
  • suggest that a remote, virtual inspection is the best solution; for example, where infection rates are very high and a school is restricting access to the site solely to specific staff and pupils
  • request a deferral where the operational challenges posed by an inspection are likely to negatively impact the safe running of your school; or where your school does not have capacity to support the inspection. If this is the case please see the section on deferrals, below.

Members are advised to contact NAHT’s helpline (0300 30 30 333 and select option 1) for assistance at the earliest opportunity, if this is required.


What do I do if I don’t believe that Ofsted has followed the process for complaints about schools appropriately?

The inspector must share the substance of the complaint with you.  Ask:

  • if the complainant provided evidence that they had followed the school’s complaints procedure
  • how the complaint has qualified for an investigation and under which prescribed description (see above for an explanation)
  • what line of enquiry the investigating HMI wishes to follow in order that you can locate and share evidence to assist the investigation.

 

If you are unclear about the reason for the investigation, or the process followed by Ofsted contact NAHT’s helpline for assistance (0300 30 30 333 and select option 1) at the earliest opportunity.


Will inspectors be in school, or working remotely?

Ofsted has announced that inspections will be conducted remotely until after February half term. 

After this, Ofsted’s intention is that inspectors will be in school, but there are likely to be circumstances where this is inappropriate due to the measures that the school has implemented to keep pupils and staff safe, and limit community transmission of the Covid virus.  In many cases it may be appropriate to ask inspectors to use virtual tools to inspect remotely (see above); and where an inspector is not able to visit a school safely, we suggest you set out the grounds for deferral (see below).

 

What will happen if Ofsted is critical of my school’s remote learning offer?

NAHT is examining Ofsted’s powers in this respect as there is no settled consensus on what constitutes effective remote learning for compulsory age school pupils. Moreover, effective remote learning provision will vary by pupils’ age, phase, ability, and a school’s context, circumstance and community.

As is the case in any inspection, any complaints or concerns about the inspection should be raised at the earliest opportunity with the lead inspector.  If the lead inspector is unable to resolve the concerns the matter should be raised with Ofsted.  Do not wait to raise concerns until after the inspection has been completed.

In all cases, seek advice from NAHT’s helpline (0300 30 30 333 and select option 1)at the earliest opportunity.


3. Can I request a deferral?

Yes - Ofsted’s deferral policy includes a section on Covid which states: 

If providers have concerns about the timing of these visits, we will judge each case on its own merits, in line with this policy. Local lockdowns that require providers to close, or other restrictions as a result of COVID-19, may be a relevant factor for referral. Visits to schools and colleges may still go ahead when substantial numbers of pupils/students are not on site but continue to be educated through remote or ‘blended’ learning.’

Ofsted has indicated that the inspectorate will be willing to consider deferring an inspection where schools are facing challenging operational circumstances as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

In some cases, NAHT believes that it may be possible to avoid a deferral by inspectors conducting their work offsite and virtually.  Nevertheless, there may still be circumstances where the impact of the external pressure of inspection on a school’s operational requirements cannot be mitigated by a virtual approach, making a deferral unavoidable.

School leaders are best placed to advise inspectors on their own school’s individual circumstances and context.


What are the grounds for deferral?

NAHT advises that where there are grounds for deferral, these will depend on a school’s individual context and circumstances, and might include more than one of the examples below.  This list is not exhaustive and does not seek to cover all eventualities.

  • The school’s risk assessment in response to the latest national lockdown has established a strict programme of controls which restricts entrance only to essential staff and specific pupils.
  • Inspectors moving within the school would breach the school’s risk assessment and covid-secure policies.
  • The high number of children of key workers and vulnerable pupils on site is creating operational stress and stretching staff resources to the maximum making the servicing of an inspection untenable.
  • The school is operating in an area of very high transmission.
  • Pupils and / or staff are operating in strictly defined ‘bubbles’ to prevent transmission.
  • The school is operating a minimum onsite staffing model, where school leaders have key operational roles that require their presence throughout the day.
  • The school is struggling with sufficiency of staff due to illness and self-isolation.

 

As noted above, it might be possible for inspectors to mitigate the deferral request by conducting the inspection remotely.

Members are advised to contact NAHT’s helpline (0300 30 30 333 and select option 1) for assistance at the earliest opportunity if this is required.

 

4.     Section 8 monitoring inspections from January 2021


Which schools are in scope for an s8 monitoring inspection?

  • Inadequate schools (schools in special measures or with serious weaknesses)
  • Schools judged as ‘requires improvement’ at their last two consecutive section 5 inspections
  • A small number of schools judged as ‘requires improvement’ at their most recent section 5 inspection that Ofsted considers to be vulnerable.


Is Ofsted ‘catching up’ on delayed monitoring inspections?

Ofsted does not regard these as ‘delayed’ monitoring inspections, meaning that they will have no direct bearing on the timing of the removal of a school from a category or being judged as good.

 

Has Ofsted published guidance for s8 monitoring inspections taking place from January 2021?

Yes – Ofsted’s ‘operational note’ is available here.


What is the duration of an s8 monitoring inspection?

The duration of monitoring inspections is set out in the Ofsted section 8 handbook:

  • one day for schools previously judged as ‘requires improvement’ or to have ‘serious weaknesses’
  • two days for a school that has been judged to require ‘special measures’.


Will Ofsted give notice of an s8 monitoring inspection?

Yes – notification will be in accordance with Ofsted’s section 8 handbook:

  • RI schools: up to two days; normally one day for any subsequent monitoring inspection
  • Inadequate schools: up to two days; normally one day for any subsequent monitoring inspection
  • ‘No formal designation’ inspections: up to half a day; but these inspections may be conducted without notice.


What should I do if I receive a phone call notifying me that my school is going to be inspected?

Ofsted has announced that inspections will be conducted remotely until after February half term. 

Ofsted’s operational note says: ‘The lead inspector’s initial call with the school will include a discussion of the relevant COVID-19 restrictions, how inspectors can work effectively within the protective measures leaders have in place.’

The phone call is an opportunity to explain the context, circumstances, restrictions and measures in force in your school and set out how that might affect an inspector’s work. 

NAHT suggests that you explain:

  • staffing levels, numbers shielding or absent through illness, including TA and support staff cover
  • any rota systems, off-site arrangements for staff
  • pressures on specific areas of the school, including, for example, leadership
  • changes to the curriculum that are a result of maintaining Covid measures
  • the number of pupils working remotely versus numbers onsite and operational pressures this is creating
  • restrictions on entry to, and movement within, the school site
  • your remote learning offer; your rationale for its design within your school; and the adaptations and organisational change that have been necessary according to your school’s circumstances and context

NAHT expects that inspectors will work flexibly to take account of schools’ individual circumstances and contexts.

It is likely that some onsite activities, such as lesson visits, book trawls, movement around the site and face to face discussions with staff may need to be replaced by remote activities.  In some cases, it may not be appropriate for inspectors to be on site at all.

This is the right time to:

  • explain that limitations on inspection activity that result from you risk assessment and covid-secure measures; for example inspectors may not be able to visit classrooms or access various parts of the school in order to maintain ‘bubbles for staff and pupils; or they may be limited to a single ventilated space within the school, using Teams or other meeting tools to hold discussions.
  • suggest that a remote, virtual inspection is the best solution; for example, where infection rates are very high and a school is restricting access to the site solely to specific staff and pupils
  • request a deferral where the operational challenges posed by an inspection are likely to negatively impact the safe running of your school; or where your school does not have capacity to support the inspection. If this is the case please see the section on deferrals, below.

Members are advised to contact NAHT’s helpline (0300 30 30 333 and select option 1) for assistance at the earliest opportunity, if this is required.


Can I request a deferral?

Yes – please see the advice in section 3 above.


Will inspectors be in school, or working remotely?

Ofsted has announced that inspections will be conducted remotely until after February half term. 

After this, Ofsted’s intention is that inspectors will be in school, but there are likely to be circumstances where this is inappropriate due to the measures that the school has implemented to keep pupils and staff safe, and limit community transmission of the Covid virus.  If an inspector is not able to visit a school there may be grounds for a deferral (see below).

Ofsted’s operational note says: ‘The lead inspector’s initial call with the school will include a discussion of the relevant COVID-19 restrictions, how inspectors can work effectively within the protective measures leaders have in place.’

Members should take this opportunity to set out the relevant restrictions and measures in force in their school that might affect an inspector’s work, so that Covid secure measures can be maintained.  Ofsted has indicated that inspectors will work flexibly to take account of schools’ individual circumstances and contexts.

This is likely to mean that some onsite activities, such as lesson visits, book trawls, movement around the site and face to face discussions with staff may need to be replaced by remote activities.  In some cases, it may not be appropriate for inspectors to be on site.

 

What inspection activities will inspectors undertake?

The operational note makes clear that inspectors’ evidence gathering activities will be in line with those set out in the Section 8 handbook (para 133-136, pp 33-34) which provides for ‘…discussions with staff and pupils, reviewing minutes of governing body meetings, observing learning and pupils’ behaviour, and talking to pupils about their work and their progress.’

However, as noted above, the note also recognises that the individual circumstances of a school may require inspectors to take precautions which might preclude some activities and require others to be conducted in line with Covid secure measures in force at the school.


What will inspectors focus on?

The operational note sets out how inspectors will ‘work alongside leaders during the inspection, providing the right level of challenge, at the right time, to support the school’s improvement.’

The note identifies that inspectors will evaluate:

  • whether the right actions are being taken for the school to be removed from a category, or become ‘good’
  • how the school is planning and adapting to meet current challenges and to return to its improvement plans
  • delivery of the curriculum; remote education; and attendance (particularly of vulnerable pupils and pupils with special educational needs and disabilities)
  • whether governors are effectively holding leaders to account and supporting them; and balancing immediate challenges against the improvement priorities
  • the impact of any support and external challenge
  • the effectiveness of safeguarding.

Members are advised to read the full detail for each of the above bullets, which is set out in the ‘Focus’ section of the note.

 

Will inspectors take account of the way in which the pandemic may have impacted the school’s improvement plans and priorities?

Yes – the operational note states that: ‘Inspectors will be sensitive to the school’s context, especially the challenges presented by managing COVID-19’.

The ‘focus’ section of the operational note makes clear inspectors will be interested in ‘whether actions have been reasonably delayed or altered by COVID-19 restrictions.

Inspectors will also be interested in what had been achieved by the start of the pandemic; how the school is adapting its existing development planning to meet current challenges; and how schools are ‘getting back on track’ with their improvement plans.


Will inspectors conduct ‘deep-dives’?

No – the operational note is unequivocal on this point.  It states: ‘It should be noted that, as is usual practice, we will not be using our deep dive methodology during monitoring inspections.’

 

Will inspectors make judgements about the effectiveness of the school’s response to the pandemic?

No – the operational note states: ‘Inspectors will not evaluate leaders’ actions during the spring and summer terms 2020 but will be interested to understand how the pandemic has affected the school, especially in terms of the pace of improvement.’

 

What do I do if I have concerns about an inspection when I am notified or concerns during the inspection?

It is critical to raise concerns at the earliest opportunity with the lead inspector.  If the lead inspector is unable to resolve the concerns the matter should be raised with Ofsted.  Do not wait to raise concerns until after the inspection has been completed.

In all cases, seek advice from NAHT’s helpline (0300 30 30 333 and select option 1) at the earliest opportunity.

 

First published 11 December 2020