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Education and Covid-19: why we need inspections when schools are shut down

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 April 2020

Melanie Ehren.

Ofsted’s decision to suspend all routine inspection from 17 March quickly became irrelevant, as schools closed and staff scrambled to organise distance learning and to support parents in homeschooling their children. Now that the lockdown looks set to continue for weeks or months, how can we ensure that children are receiving a decent education?

Are we to have no school inspections during lockdown? Or should we instead find new ways to evaluate teaching and learning?

I believe we should continue inspections, albeit in a different form. Ofsted should continue to assess teaching and learning for reasons of 1) transparency, 2) improvement and 3) preparing us for when schools open again. The approach I suggest would require a redesign of the current framework, applying it to the current context of homeschooling and distance learning with more agile, mobile tools to collect data. Let me explain.

We need inspections, even (or particularly) in a time of crisis

Schools have more than enough to deal with now and will have welcomed the temporary suspension of routine inspections. However, if schools are closed for longer, we need some kind of accountability and evaluation for the following three reasons:

  1. Transparency: we need to know whether and how pupils are learning and how they are currently being educated; how parents are coping with homeschooling; to what extent schools are teaching online and how they are supporting parents in their new role as teachers.
  2. Improve: a good understanding of how homeschooling and online teaching are currently organized and where they are – or aren’t – working well enables a sharing of good practice across the country. It would also enable a more coordinated response, such as by developing online materials and assessments, or sharing a whole-group instruction from the best online teachers.
  3. Prepare: at some point schools will open again and teachers will be faced with students who have either progressed well or have stagnated in their learning, or who have major gaps in certain subject areas. Staff and students will need to relearn to manage a regular school day and whole class teaching and deal with the pressure of reintroducing exams. Depending on the length of the current isolation, and whether loved ones were ill or passed away, students may also experience stress or anxiety when coming back to school. Knowing how teaching and learning are currently organized, their quality and wider experiences of children and young adults will help prepare interventions and measures for a good start when schools open again. We weren’t prepared for the closure of schools, let’s at least try to prepare for schools reopening.

Inspection, when schools are closed: redefining (measures of) educational quality

But given that it is not ‘business as usual’, how should Ofsted inspect? After all, there are no schools to go to, no lessons to be observed, and no recent data available about pupils’ achievements.

What ‘educational quality’ means has drastically changed, as have the roles and responsibilities of those now tasked with teaching and learning.

Let’s reflect on these two matters to understand how Ofsted may be a force for good in the current situation.

First of all, how can we now understand ‘quality of education’ in a context of homeschooling and distance learning. Ofsted makes graded judgements on the following areas using the four-point scale:

  • Quality of education: curriculum and learner outcomes
  • Behaviour and attitudes of learners
  • Personal development of learners
  • Leadership and management
  • Safeguarding


Educational quality: home-school partnerships

Applying these standards to the world we are currently in requires a substantial rethink. Ofsted now needs to look at the specific context in which students are learning, and the arrangements and home-school partnerships which are in place to

  • implement the curriculum,
  • ensure and promote respectful relations between parents (as teachers), teachers and children,
  • ensure their personal development, particularly in a situation of stress, isolation and high anxiety, and
  • safeguard children’s well-being.


This requires a very different type of leadership, where school principals need to manage their staff off-site and create a sense of community while also ensuring a school-wide approach to online learning. They also need to equip teachers with the professional skills to co-teach with parents.


Agile tools to measure quality of education

Ofsted needs to find new ways to collect evidence and monitor the quality of education.

Fortunately there are excellent examples of mobile apps to be used:

  • Teachertapp, for example, sends thousands of teachers three quick multiple choice questions about their day or their opinions on teaching and offers weekly analysis of how different types of teachers responded to the questions we asked. Their last report provides a comprehensive overview of what distance learning now looks like, what is happening in schools and what teachers need and want during the closures. The data allows us to understand how schools are coordinating their online offer and how well-supported teachers are in moving to online teaching.
  • Community score cards have been used in low and middle income countries (e.g. Ghana, India) to enable parents to monitor classroom teaching and learning (for example, reporting teacher attendance at specific moments during the day). Similar tools can be used, for such things as to find out how much time students are now learning at home, which subject areas are covered, and how they are supported by schools.


In this unprecedented and abrupt situation, we need to collect and share information about how to ensure high quality teaching and learning continues. Using more agile tools to measure quality and share lessons widely may even have the positive outcome of moving inspection to a more formative type of assessment.

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4 Responses to “Education and Covid-19: why we need inspections when schools are shut down”

  • 1
    Huw Humphreys wrote on 23 April 2020:

    Whilst I appreciate the logic of this piece, and the thought that has gone into it, and indeed the learning that may arise from it, it is deeply rooted in the concept of mistrust that gave rise to Ofsted in the first place. Surely it would be better to think of ways that schools themselves could link together and share and challenge one another on good practices that have been found to be helpful to their particular children (remembering Dylan Wiliam’s maxim that not all things work everywhere but everything works somewhere) and develop concepts of survival, teaching and learning, safeguarding, wellbeing etc. After all, this is unlikely to be the only pandemic we experience, and this one may last for a very long time. In that case, the divergence that schools show in practice (and that divergence will only increase with time) should be seen as an opportunity for a different way of evaluating what works. Parents too will need to be brought into that evaluation, both as evaluators, a voice for their children, and also given the opportunity to share what has worked well and what could flow back into school. No solutions immediately, and I really appreciate the post and its thinking, but surely we can find a way of evaluation that proffers more trust to schools.

  • 2
    Rosemary Davis wrote on 23 April 2020:

    Superficially, the idea of continuing inspections in a different form is an attractive one. However, it is likely that only teacher planning and input, with good communication to parents can be ‘inspected’. How far, what actually takes place in homes can be ‘inspected’ is questionable. Some children will experience a reasonable balance between school work and leisure activities, others may well be subjected to overload or, alternatively, very little, if any structured learning opportunities.

  • 3
    Kendra McMahon wrote on 23 April 2020:

    We certainly need to establish what is going on and how schools can be supported.. It might be a good use of Ofsted staff expertise to do this. But schools do not need to be graded.

  • 4
    Terry Pearson wrote on 24 April 2020:

    A thoughtful piece which explores how Ofsted might make use of data which is currently not collected in order to ‘inspect’ school provision which involves a large element of schooling at home. However, is a focus on finding alternative methods of inspecting a priority for the inspectorate if the key question is to understand how Ofsted may be a force for good in the current situation? I think it is not.

    Surely the most appropriate consideration is how Ofsted resources can be used most effectively during this challenging time. Ofsted has one of the largest databases of empirical findings from classroom and school inspections in the world. Ofsted Inspectors (OIs) have returned to their schools and are drawing on their knowledge of inspection findings alongside their skills and expertise to support teachers in the rapid development of unprecedented changes to their schools’ curriculum.

    But what of the Ofsted inspection workforce? Around 200 full-time HMI are involved in the inspection of schools at a cost of around £1 million per month. What are the nation’s curriculum experts doing to support schools during this time? Not much at the moment.

    Extraordinary times call for extraordinary thinking. As we move into the second month of the shutdown of schools it really is time for Ofsted to step up to the plate and call upon the creative thinking of HMI to conjure up novel ways of making the best use their expertise to support schools in providing a quality experience for their pupils.