Ofsted inspections will not go ahead in the final week of term to ensure schools and colleges in England can plan for Omicron contingency measures.
In an email on Thursday, the Department for Education (DfE) said early years settings, schools and colleges will only be visited by inspectors next week if there are safeguarding concerns.
A school leaders’ union is calling for the suspension of inspections to be extended further amid continuing Covid-19 disruption to education.
Last month, the DfE told secondary schools in England to test pupils on-site in January once they return to help “reduce transmission” after Christmas.
Ofsted confirmed at the time that secondary schools would not be inspected, unless there are urgent concerns, during the first week of term in January to allow for the testing of pupils on-site.
In an email to schools and colleges, the DfE said: “Early years settings, schools and colleges will be using the final days of term to put in place these measures and consider contingency measures for January.
“In order to do that contingency planning, the Secretary of State for Education and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector have agreed that early years settings, schools and colleges will not be inspected next week unless there are safeguarding concerns.”
The email – which was sent after the announcement of new Plan B restrictions – adds that all education and childcare settings should revisit their “existing outbreak plans” to prepare for any possible changes in public health advice following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
Face masks are already being recommended in communal areas of England’s secondary schools and colleges amid concerns about the variant, but teaching and support staff unions have reiterated their calls for face coverings to also be reintroduced in secondary school classrooms.
But the DfE email to schools says: “We do not recommend that pupils and staff wear face coverings in classrooms, unless their Director of Public Health advises them to temporarily do so in one of the circumstances described in the Contingency Framework Guidance.”
It adds that all education settings should continue to provide “face-to-face teaching” and staff should continue to attend work in order to deliver this.
Protecting face-to-face education has been my priority from day one in this job.
Measures announced tonight will protect the NHS & give time for more vital jabs, as well as helping keep children & young people in childcare, school, college and uni, with their friends & teachers.
— Nadhim Zahawi (@nadhimzahawi) December 8, 2021
On the suspension of Ofsted inspections next week, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “This is something we have been repeatedly pushing for.
“Ofsted inspections are the very last thing schools need given the current level of disruption due to Covid-19, and the pressure school leaders are under just to stay open and minimise disruption for learners. Pupils will be best served by their schools not being distracted by preparation for inspection.
“Clearly, one week goes nowhere near far enough and we will be pushing for this suspension to be extended into the new year.”
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We have repeatedly asked for Ofsted to show more empathy in its approach to inspections given the extreme pressures currently being experienced by schools and colleges in light of the continuing disruption being caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We are pleased to see that the chief inspector has agreed that there will be no routine inspections next week in order to allow for the contingency planning indicated by the Government.”
But she added: “It is our strong view that Ofsted should go further and agree in general to grant the deferral of routine inspections to a later date upon request while schools and colleges continue to experience the disruption being caused by the virus.”
Both the National Education Union (NEU) and NASUWT teaching union have written an open letter to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi calling on him to “pause Ofsted” until after the February half-term.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “Now is simply not the right time to return to Ofsted inspections, either before Christmas – as the Government rightly recognises – or in the weeks following.
“Of course, schools must be accountable but on the current evidence inspections show little or no concession to the disruption of Covid-19.
“This is foolish in the extreme and is leading to many good staff leaving or considering their position.
“Ofsted has no useful contribution to make to schools in this current situation. They need to get out of the way and let schools and colleges concentrate on their essential work.”