‘Tone deaf’: Ofsted apologises for coronavirus guidance referring to headteachers dying

School leaders call for inspections to be suspended amid time of 'national emergency'

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Saturday 14 March 2020 14:27 GMT
Coronavirus: Can herd immunity help the UK battle the outbreak?

An Ofsted director has apologised for coronavirus guidance that referred to headteachers dying as a union called for inspections to be suspended amid a “national emergency”.

The watchdog came under fire after it published updated guidance on deferring visits amid the coronavirus outbreak, which included a section on what to do if a school leader died.

This text, which was described as “tone deaf” and “insensitive” by school bosses on social media, has since been removed by the watchdog and it has apologised for any “distress” caused.

It was part of Ofsted’s existing policy on inspections, which predated the coronavirus outbreak.

Chris Jones, director of corporate strategy at Ofsted, tweeted: “We want to ensure that we are able to defer inspections for any schools impacted by Covid-19.

“The language here is historic and needs to be changed, which we will. I’m sorry for any distress caused.”

The inspectorate had already received criticism from school leaders for publishing a tweet on Friday that said it was “business as usual” for inspection teams.

Addressing hundreds of heads, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), called on the government to suspend all Ofsted inspections during the crisis.

Mr Barton said it was not a time for “business as usual” but a time of “national emergency”. One school leader, he said, currently has 15 members of staff off because of coronavirus.

At ASCL’s conference in Birmingham on Saturday, Mr Barton said the government should move to suspend all inspections with the exception of establishments with specific safeguarding concerns.

His calls for Ofsted to show it understands the “extraordinary pressures on schools and colleges” and for inspections to be halted were met with a round of applause across the conference hall.

Mr Barton added: “We acknowledge that Ofsted has taken a step in the right direction by accepting that the current situation may be a reason for an inspection to be deferred.

“However, it has not gone far enough. A case-by-case basis is not good enough. It simply cannot be right that schools and colleges are judged in a high-stakes manner in these extraordinary circumstances at all.”

Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director of education, addressed the conference on Saturday and told heads that inspections of schools and colleges affected by the virus will be deferred.

He added that the chief inspector has asked to be “personally involved” in any decision not to defer in these circumstances – which was met with applause from school leaders.

“We will be proactive in asking schools and colleges if they want to request deferral because of coronavirus and clearly we will look very favourably on all such requests,” Mr Harford said.

So far, at least one college has contacted Ofsted to request for an inspection to be deferred which was granted. But Mr Harford said it was “quite possible” they will receive more requests in weeks to come.

On the guidance which included a section on headteacher deaths, Mr Barton said it felt “misguided”.

Speaking to the media, he added: “You can understand why people felt cross about that. I think it was probably more an unfortunate response where they then rushed out some previous guidance.

“Guidance that under a previous set of circumstances would have been fine suddenly looks insensitive.”

On Twitter, Stuart Lock, CEO of a group of schools in Bedford, called the original guidance “tone deaf”.

Vic Goddard, head of Passmores Academy in Essex, added that it was a prime example of how “misplaced” Ofsted’s priorities are.

Responding to the criticism of the guidance on deaths, which was later amended, Mr Harford said the watchdog wanted to get the policy “out quickly” so schools were aware of exceptional circumstances.

On the deferrals policy, which has been in place since 2016, he said: “Policies are written to cover off all possibilities. The facts are that we have never done an inspection when there has been a death of a headteacher, proprietor, deputy headteacher or teacher.”

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