Introducing the new Ofsted podcast, 'Ofsted Talks'. This is the pilot episode.  

Chris Jones discusses with Amanda Spielman and Chris Russell the impact of the pandemic on children and schools, as well as Chris Russell's ambitions for his new position as National Director for Education. 

Transcript

CJ – Chris Jones

AS – Amanda Spielman

CR – Chris Russell

CJ: Hi everybody and welcome to the Ofsted podcasts ‘Ofsted Talks’. This is the first episode in our new venture and it's one that we're all very excited about. My name is Chris Jones. I'm the Director of Corporate Strategy at Ofsted, and I'll be hosting most of these podcasts, along with Anna Trethewey, our Head of Strategy. Anna couldn't be with us today, but we'll see her in the next episode. I've got with me. Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, Hello Amanda.

 

AS: Hello Chris.

 

CJ: And I've also got with me, Chris Russell, who is currently Regional Director for South East region but about to take on a new challenge as National Director of Education. Hello Chris.

 

CR: Hello Chris.

 

CJ: Very pleased to have both of you with us on this pilot episode an experiment for all of us, we'll see how it goes.

 

CJ: We're going to talk a bit about COVID and the impact of the pandemic on children and on schools and other education providers. We're going to talk a bit about both the areas of concern that we've picked up, but also any upsides of lockdown for children and families, and we're also going to talk a bit about inspections, and what inspections might look like post COVID. And why inspection is important post COVID. So, Chris, I'm going to turn to you first, I mentioned your new role as National Director of Education. Tell us a bit about why you wanted to take on that challenge, and what you think you'll be letting yourself in for in the first few months.

 

CR: Yeah, thanks Chris. I mean, I guess I do know what I'm letting myself in for because I had the opportunity during the pandemic to cover the role for five months when Sean Halford who's our current national director was seconded to the COVID taskforce, so that was obviously a very interesting time that was between September and January so obviously a lot going on in terms of the pandemic, and a big focus at that time was shaping our work to do very different things at that time, in terms of what kind of inspection and wider work. So very interesting time, I really enjoyed it actually; really enjoyed working with the team; excellent colleagues in the, in the directorate. So really looking forward to I mean what's great about the job I think is it sits so centrally in Ofsted as an organisation all that policy work, all that developmental work around our inspection across the education remits, you know you're very much at the centre of that, you know, as I say working with a fantastic bunch of people actually within the Directorate who, who will work on all of those things. So, I'm really looking forward to that. It's obviously a great opportunity to, I think within that role to have external engagement with the sector and I really enjoyed doing that during that period. And that will be a really strong focus for me. But also you know I've been a regional director before that an inspector but a regional director now for I think six or seven years. So, I'll also bring into that, all that sort of experience of kind of inspection delivery working with inspectors who are out there doing the inspection. I'm also looking forward to kind of, you know, drawing on that and keeping those really close links you know with inspection and with inspection delivering, with our inspectors, you know, as I as I go into the role.

 

CJ: Fantastic, well I'm convinced, you can have the job.

 

CR: Thanks Chris.

 

CJ: We'll stick with you, Chris. Our first topic conversation. We're going to talk about what we found when we did visits during the autumn of, 2020 When we did a series of visits to all different types of providers, which were non-judgmental, but which allowed us to report back on what was happening in the sector, and report back to government, to parents, to schools and colleges. Can you tell us a bit about what was going on at that time? What did we find, what were some of the concerns that we highlighted?

 

CR: Yeah, I mean clearly that was a, you know, a very interesting time where you because we, we just had a number of months where the vast majority of children were out of school and from September obviously schools, largely opened up, although as we all know that there was quite an impact in terms of pupils being sent, sent home, etc. So, you know at that point very much we saw the impact of disruption in schooling from sort of march through to September. And, you know, we were also, you know, looking at the way in which schools were trying to get back to normal and actually get underneath the learning loss that had happened and how they might actually enable pupils to catch up. I think what it showed us more than anything else because, you know, it was a very interesting few months actually enabling us to get underneath all of that which fed into the thematic reports that we produced during that period. And what it did show us if we needed to be shown I think was the absolute importance of, of children being in school. And what children had missed by not being in school during that period. And of course, you know schools had put in place remote learning and I think, you know schools were finding their feet with that during that period from March to September, and what we were seeing there was that, you know, that practice it evolved from very little really to schools actually making a much better job of remote learning where they needed to but, but actually clearly the recognition that it's much better if, if children are in school. So, you know we saw all of that really and it gave us a bit of a window on that kind of learning loss and what, what the effect that been on pupils during that period when they really were out of school. And I think, you know, leaders, then and probably still now, you know, still getting underneath that and still, you know, achieving an understanding of that really but it was certainly, you know, very apparent the impact of that I mean, you know, very broadly to, you know, in the early years, for example we saw some real impact on some of those basic things for younger children around, you know, fine and gross motor skills, some of the things around personal development and socialisation. Clearly, there's been a significant impact on there. And, you know, more broadly in terms of the curriculum, while you know, pupils had made some progress with remote learning. Clearly, there are limitations there really and some pupils respond more positively to it, others find it more challenging and clearly there are elements of the curriculum that are much more difficult to deliver. In that way, and we really saw the impact of that and I've always been very keen musician, it's been very apparent to me during this the impact on music and the difficulties and actually, young people playing together musically. So, you know, some of those broader things we really, really saw the impact of that, I mean more widely as well clearly what we saw there was a real impact on transition that really important transition when pupils move from primary to secondary school. Clearly, that didn't happen in the normal way and you know you really feel for those young people if they've had that schools made the best attempt they could, at supporting people through that transition. But it wasn't the normal process for them. So, we saw a whole range of the impact of that really during those visits at that time, and obviously after that what we did have was a period again of disruption from January onwards where most pupils again were out of school. And while schools had done a lot to develop remote learning. And what we saw in the visits that we did in, in spring, virtual visits actually, in spring. Was that remote learning had moved on, there's clearly no doubt that that's not the same as people as being in school. So, you know there is that ongoing learning loss that peoples have experienced from that period.

 

CJ: Amanda, Chris has given us a really good summary of what we found on those visits from the autumn. This was at a point when inspections were suspended, and we didn't have that normal flow of information coming through to us. Why did you want us to be out there doing these visits, why did you think that was important?

 

AS: Ofsted is such a key source of information from the ground, and getting beyond the anecdotal because, yes, there are great many anecdotes that flow through here or there, But our work, setting up a programme that looks at a good balanced sample across the country, people in difficult circumstances; people who are coping well really helps get the national perspective, and helps put all those anecdotes in proportion. So, I really wanted us to be doing that to be that pair of eyes that could help pick up and put together the big the bigger picture that could really help everybody focus on the right things for children.

 

CJ: And we know that it was, it was hugely helpful to government, for example in planning their policy response to the pandemic to know what was happening in those in those providers.

 

AS: I think it was, and I think, particularly the fact that we were able to do a series of rapid reports we didn't just save it all up for blockbuster at the end, we really worked on our teams to get as much out of the evidence we collected as quickly as we could to publish a series of monthly commentaries, and I think that was a really flexible and responsive way to approach the task.

 

CJ: Chris, let's talk about a couple more specifics in terms of what we found as a throughout the period of lockdown. There was rightly quite a lot of concern about children with special educational needs and disabilities around disadvantaged children who perhaps didn't have either the kind of access to education through your online systems or what didn't have the kind of family support structures and family environment that made education work in the home, tell us a bit about what we found, for those groups of vulnerable children.

 

CR: Yeah, I mean there's no doubt that, you know, clearly there's been an impact there for all children and young people but, but some children young people have been particularly affected by that. And one group of pupils with SEND, with special educational needs, or disabilities. And what we found there was that there was a particular impact in terms of those children missing school; for a range of reasons really some of that around some of those, those young people clearly were shielding so couldn't go to school, others there were problems of transport, in others, the schools we're trying to, were struggling to sort of manage to deal with, with some of those young people's particular needs. So, you know that there is a particular challenge around attendance at school which was particularly affected with that group of pupils. But actually, more broadly than that as well there was a there was an impact on some of those support services which is so crucial for many of those young people. So, a loss of speech and language therapy for example of a loss of occupational therapy or physiotherapy in many cases, those support services were badly disrupted, and even when some of those support services started to go back sometimes, they were some of those services were done virtually which clearly is not as the same, not the same as, as having that face to face. So, we've seen particular impact there. And also, when pupils have returned to school. In some cases, the curriculum that that's been offered or is being offered is not as broad as it previously was so some opportunities have been lost, some opportunities for example for community learning for going out and doing things in the community have been affected by the by the pandemic. And as you also say Chris, you know, that disadvantaged peoples in many cases have been particularly affected by this period, because so much during the period of lockdown and a period of disruption has been dependent on whether it's been remote learning on people's helping young people. And while many of those disadvantaged pupils have been prioritised and have been in school during this period, and actually some of them have benefited from that and the smaller classes and the, the more individual attention. Not all have so many have missed out and maybe have been a bit at home and haven't been able to benefit fully from remote learning, so have particular gaps in their knowledge and understanding.

 

CJ: Amanda we've been talking recently, haven't we, about the system of support for children with SEND. We've published a couple of reports recently that build on the findings that Chris was talking about from our work doing that during the period of lockdown. What are your impressions of how the system is support children with SEND is at the moment, um, what do you think the government in that SEND review should be thinking about?

 

AS: SEND; It's so obviously one of the area's that's already suffered during the pandemic and for fairly obvious reasons for many children, it doesn't seem to be impossible to give them the services on which they and their families so depend. So,  see seeing so much of the in person support melting away for the duration has been really, really tough for children and their families against that we have heard from a minority of children, perhaps sometimes children with very particular kinds of special needs some social difficulties that it's actually been helpful for them to have the quiet, the peace, of working from home, I'm not saying that this is an absolute universal blanket finding, but it's clear that on balance it's been there's been a really big loss to children and young people with SEND, it has been a big problem. And I think it's focused people's minds, very much on what it is that we actually need to make schoolwork for those children and to help them get as much in the way of education, and as much social development to really make sure it's a good experience all round.

 

CJ: You've made the point. During the last 12 months so that's the, the pandemic didn't impact purely disadvantaged children, actually there were lots of effects that were perhaps counterintuitive, such as motivation, being a real factor in whether children learned.

 

AS: It's so interesting because everybody who works in our sectors is so accustomed to thinking about the labels that we all use as shorthand for various kinds of disadvantage, free school meals, Pupil Premium SEND, ESL and so on. And we tend to assume that the various kinds of problem, and disadvantage and underachievement will line up quite well with those labels, and of course what we saw here was something that didn't line up neatly at all. Sometimes, it was about families, it was about whether the parents were working inside or outside the home and the effect that had on the amount of time they could spend with children on remote education. Sometimes it was about things like just like having younger siblings. If you've got a parent at home but you've also got a toddler and a baby in the house, those parents just cannot spend as much time on helping the seven-year-old, as a family where there's just seven-year-old, and the motivation piece came through, so strongly, and few people listen to this can't have heard stories of teenagers just have slumped in their bedrooms, not really able to summon the energy to get out of bed and such depressing stories. And that cuts right across the sexes social class, every dimension, and we heard from so many places about children who just couldn't be motivated and that added up to a substantial minority who really didn't get involved in remote education when we were another, or not to any serious extent so there's a slice of children who, what are some children of motored, we know there's a bigger slice of children who have really struggled.

 

CJ: We've talked a lot about the concerns that we, that we've reported on over the last 12 months or so. Amanda you mentioned some of the positives for children with SEND, some children with SEND, who will have enjoyed working at home and in relative peace and quiet.

 

AS: It's clear from every survey and study I've seen that there is a subset of children who enjoyed being at home, whose parents enjoyed teaching with them, I think, I think there are parents out there who have discovered their inner teacher and some of those actually want to carry on with it, carry on home educating indefinitely but I think there's a bigger group of parents who are pretty happy to be handing back to teachers. I know that there are, there are some parents who have decided to carry on through this year who we think we're likely to see the children coming back into school in September, is all a bit uncertain actually quite how many children have shifted to the home education blind for good. It's one of those things we will we're just waiting to see come September.

 

CJ: It was interesting, wasn't it to see the difference between the first lockdown the kind of spring, summer 2020 lockdown, and the second period of school closure in terms of the impact on parents actually and speaking to the parents in in my team. Whilst in the first lockdown, they were trying to keep the kids entertained but didn't have much schoolwork to give them by the second lockdown, they were kind of inundated with online learning and worksheets and various things to doing it became a full time job in itself being a parent of a, of a child in lockdown, Chris, that was something you mentioned in terms of the difference between the first and the second lockdown in terms of the kind of breadth and depth of the remote learning offer that was out there.

 

CR: I think that's very true Chris actually I mean; I think we have to remember that we're going back to March, April, you know, suddenly we're in lockdown and school was really pretty much from nowhere where we're, we're kind of inventing their own remote learning in most cases and finding their way with it and sharing what they've learned with it you know other school leaders and so on to develop that practice. And we really saw that I think we went out in spring, and because if you remember there in early January. The schools were again close the majority of pupils and we did some remote monitoring inspection work during that period. And that really enabled us to have a window on what schools are done with remote learning we, we certainly saw that as you say crazy in some cases, that certainly did up the expectation on parents I think some parents realise the challenges of teaching and of managing young people in their learning. But certainly, you know, we really saw, we didn't really see the development of that remote learning practice. I mean while, you know, as we've said we all acknowledge that's not the same as being in school, and actually it's a very personal thing for young people really, those that can engage well and be motivated learning remotely and others that find that really difficult I think that's really, really sort of personal thing. But at least you know, through that development and we hope that schools won't have to close again like that, but I think what schools have learned there will surely be helpful for young people. For example, you might be off ill or whatever, and actually can have a better education when they're not in school, but absolutely, what we found this, you know, whatever schools have done and I think they, they worked really hard to and some did extremely well, to develop that remote learning. It's not the same as having children in school.

 

AS: Yes, I agree with what Chris has said, and, of course, children don't know what they might have started doing if they'd been in school, and some of the children who were perfectly happy at home may nevertheless have missed out on some plays and football, some new activities that they didn't know they'd be interested in that, they haven't been able to try because school hasn't been it hasn't been open for them to work to offer them. So, it's, I don't think we should get too comfortable this whole the wider development exposing children to things that aren't on the home radar is such an important part of what the education system does.

 

CR: Yeah and I mean I don't want to get too anecdotal but I mean speaking recently to a piano teacher near to me who does you know after school piano lessons and so he was saying how A) how many pupils dropped out during the pandemic, and B) how few young people have started taking lessons during that period. So I think some of those broader educational experiences and I mentioned music earlier and do so again really you really worried for the kind of legacy of that on what young people have missed out.

 

AS: I think a lot of parents have really started to admire teachers for what they do. And to understand quite how much skill goes into teaching a teaching a class and getting real educational progress and one mother friend of mine who's got a child at primary school has said that she's not sure that her relationship with her daughter is ever going to recover.

 

CJ: So, we talked about the fact that despite some heroic efforts on the parts of teachers and also parents and children, of course, there will have been learning time loss and there will have been things that we would have expected children to know and to be able to do. But they can't, as a result of, of the various periods of school closure and remote learning. So, how do you, Amanda, think that children are going to catch up to where they should be.

 

AS: Catch up is a really difficult concept because, first of all I know it's not a term that everybody is comfortable with, but parents seem to like it, and to find it an easy and understandable way to think about it, so please will listeners who aren't comfortable with the term bear with me. But when we talk about catch up, there's an implication that we know what the baseline is, and of course COVID hit suddenly in the middle of a school year, we don't have a national level, we've got a pretty good handle on where children on average would have been, but that doesn't translate into a good understanding, a really good understanding, at pupil level or even at school level, of where everybody would have been. So it's very important not just to assume that there's a nice of catch up scale that can be imposed on every single child that says, You've caught up, you haven't, it's a much subtler thing than that. But pretty much every child has lost some of the teaching they would have had, and some have with school parent helps managed never that nevertheless to really sort of deeply learn everything we would have done, but for many more, they either haven't got things at all, or there are chunks missing or chunks that they're pretty superficial with. So catch up is actually about picking up and really understanding what are the pieces that haven't been learned to have only been partly learnt, and really making sure that schools work well from that point to consolidate what's in strength and what's there to add the pieces that are to really build a strong foundations for educational progress going forward. It's not something that you can simply point and say, now do catch up. It's about really good diagnosis, teaching from where children are and recognising that the patterns of what children have and don't have will be somewhat different from usual so it's got to be about taking children forward with really clear focus on what they need to get them ready for the next step in a way that that won't leave them with horrible hidden weaknesses that could trip them up in the next stage.

 

CJ: It sounds like you're talking about things that are fundamental to education in normal times as well, you're really clear and productive use of assessment. Very well thought through sequenced and planned curriculum. Is that Is that what you think that they capture answers about you, Chris.

 

CR: Yeah, I mean I think this absolutely echo everything that Amanda has said there, and I think this really highlights actually, the importance of unclearly was important before but even more now the importance of having clarity about your curriculum and the structure of your curriculum. And those really key elements that pupils absolutely have got to have, Like I say it was important before but it's even more important now so you know, for schools to have that and have that understanding of, you know where then the pupils because of the impact of the pandemic, I've got gaps in that and to work at ensuring that those, those kind of key curricular building blocks are strong for those young people.

 

AS: And I think what makes it a bit harder for teachers is probably that, that the pattern of things that children do well on and things that children struggle with is probably a little bit different when so many of missed teaching in the classroom, some of the harder concepts that with, with good teaching you can get all children to grasp and do well on quite quickly are probably things that, that have disproportionately suffered during COVID. So they're probably dealing with slightly different patterns of gaps and difficulty from usual.

 

CJ: Where does that leave us with tutoring them, So lots of schools will be using tutors in order to help children catch up in fact it's one of the government's aims is to get as many schools as possible using tutors but it sounds like from what from what you're saying, Amanda, it sounds like schools would need to be very careful about how they use tutors in order to make sure that they're teaching the right things.

 

AS: Very definitely tutoring. Tutoring has some great strengths, but it's got to be well integrated with the curriculum that the children are being taught, and it can be really good for reinforcement and practice for children who just need that extra bit of time to consolidate and strengthen concepts to that to the level of other others in their class, it can be very good for filling in gaps where children have missed chunks of schooling that others. It's obviously used in normal times, a lot where children have got a particular objective, they need to meet; a grade for a university course or an 11 Plus test that a parent wants them to wants them to do well in. But in this context, it really should be about tying in well with curriculum so that all children, even the ones who've come for this to drift get back into the range of the normal teaching in the normal classroom as quickly as possible because that's the most efficient and the most motivating way for most for most children actually is to being in a classroom with their peers with a good teacher, who really knows their subject.

 

CJ: You mentioned exam grades there. Give us your, your take on the last couple of years in terms of how exam grades have been issued.

 

AS: What a bumpy ride, it's been for us all. I think what we've really learned going through a second year of an alternative to act two exams is quite how difficult it is to construct an alternative that satisfies young people that they can really show what they can do and that it's fair that people who might have thought that were easy alternatives to exams, probably know that any alternative is just as complicated.
But I think a great deal of effort has gone in by teachers and many others to try and make sure that we've got something that's as good as it can be in these very difficult circumstances. It's not perfect. I think it's important that everybody understands it's not perfect, but it is a genuine attempt to give children something that reflects what they've learned what they're capable of learning and sets them up for the next stage.

 

CJ: Chris the last few things we talked about tutoring and exams, clearly have implications for how we inspect schools once we go back to inspection. In September, what will inspection look like in September when we aren't able to rely on, up to date, exam results and we've got to take account of mass tutoring and all sorts of other catch-up interventions what impact you think that we'll have.

 

CR: Yeah, I mean, I mean first of all, perhaps just to say something generally about that about that sort of process of returning to, you know fully normal routine inspections on, and it's felt very much like a long journey that because way back from April through the autumn term through the spring term, we totally changed what we're doing, and I think that was absolutely the right thing for the time is actually. What that enabled us to do in Autumn was appropriately given the particular challenges then that schools were facing in reopening up at cetera, was that we visited schools we didn't make that normal evaluation, but we were really able to capture the process that schools had gone through during lockdown and, and as they as they returned back to fit more face-to-face teaching. And then, as we went into spring term, although working virtually we introduced that element of evaluation, back into our work but very much monitoring focused on schools that were weak is going into the pandemic. But we very much, you know, felt and feel that the best thing that we can do as an organisation in terms of supporting the process of recovery is our normal inspection process and that's what we're working through this term in a kind of process of transition to be, to be able to do that fully in September. So, you know we do feel that our normal inspection tools were absolutely right for before the pandemic and they're absolutely right for now. Our education inspection framework we spent a long time developing enormous amount of engagement with the sector, to ensure that we were really getting it right and ensuring that can have the most the most impact. We only did it for about seven months of course and then we were locked down but what we saw during that period was the impact of it, the value of it, the very positive way in which the sector received it and we absolutely you know are finding that as we as we move back to that this term. That doesn't mean we don't need to make tweaks and we have made some tweaks to it to ensure that it reflects COVID and the particular challenges of COVID and actually we've already put our revised handbook for September on our website so people can see that already, but we did feel that we didn't need to make enormous changes to it we did feel that at its core, you know, it absolutely gets underneath education it focuses on the quality of education, there's a strong focus on the curriculum. And we therefore think it's actually the right tool for when you know our schools are returning to normal and are dealing with people who may have lost learning, etc. So, I think the real value of the education inspection framework is that strong focus on quality of education and particularly that strong focus on curriculum planning, which is going to be more important than ever. So, you know we're confident that we've put a lot of thought into this and a lot of piloting. We're confident that our education frameworks framework is absolutely the right thing for now and thought for routine inspection going forward.

 

CJ: No doubt there'll be some relieved, school leaders annotate inspectors and not having to read an entirely new post COVID inspection handbook.

 

CR: Absolutely and we we've listed all the changes but as people will see, you know, on the whole, they are really minor tweaks to the framework.

 

AS: I'll come in here because it's, It's really worth saying I think that the schools and colleges I visited this term, and the people I've talked to; a message that's come, come to me really strongly as you are keeping the EIF, aren't you, people have been wanting that right that reassurance that it's not being tossed out of the window, both because it's good and because it because people have had enough. Enough change going on many fronts that the continuity and clarity is really welcome, I think.

 

CR: But clearly, really important that we tested it to make sure that we were being fair, and you know we did a lot of piloting to ensure that that was the case. And actually we've although we've particularly focused on our normal monitoring visits to  schools, graded requires improvement or inadequate, this term in quite a few cases, we've converted those inspections to full inspections, And you know, improved the grades of those schools and, and really tested out that full inspection methodology and found that it works well and obviously great news for those schools that despite the challenges of COVID, they've still managed to make that improvement, either out of inadequate or from requires improvement to good.

 

CJ: Yeah, that's great. They've been able to be recognised for that. Amanda, more broadly, we talked about Ofsted being a force for improvement in the system. Some people will say, post COVID Ofsted should just leave us alone, to get on with it talk to us a bit about how you see inspection as being part of how the system improves.

 

AS: I think there are at least three ways that we really are a force for improvement and getting those back online matters so much. First and foremost, children have just one chance at education. So, the idea of us, not doing our job, not helping to make sure that every child is getting an experience as good as it can be that really matters. But there are two other things I'd like to say on top. The first of which is, we've redesigned inspection, in a way that puts significantly more emphasis on making sure that the process is valuable for the people at the receiving end, that they come away from inspection thinking that conversation, that dialogue was helpful, that it's helped us think through what we should be doing differently, that it's worth the effort involved. And the third piece is that we've thought a lot more about the insights we can give from all the work we do, how we can draw out of inspection, the kinds of insight that help the sector, that help government think differently about what they do make choices that then circle back around and improve and broaden the experience that children get, and at the end of the day it's all about making that experience as good as it can possibly be.

 

CJ: Thanks very much to Amanda Spielman, Her Majesties Chief Inspector and to Chris Russell, new incoming National Director for Education. This has been ‘Ofsted Talks’ you can find us on Podbean, Twitter, or the Ofsted gov.uk page. In future we hope to have guests from outside Ofsted to have really good thorough intense discussions about issues like exclusions, prison education, social care and many more. And thanks for everyone for listening. Goodbye.

 

AS: Goodbye

 

CR: Goodbye.

 

 

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