Last reviewed 4 August 2021

With the start of the new academic year will come the return of inspection and testing in English schools. Michael Evans considers this, together with some of the worries and concerns of educational professionals.

An optimistic start

At the start of a new school year, after months of disruption and certainty, many school leaders will feel that they have been run ragged. Understandably there might be a degree of trepidation as they prepare for the new term, but there will be a determination for their schools to return to some form of normality as soon as it is humanly possible.

This will be within the context of an unpredictable Covid-19 virus that will still be very much in evidence. There will be no way of telling if the sudden emergence of a new variant will cause a further surge of infection, leading to another lockdown and a fresh period of remote learning.

The good news is that following months of experience, established procedures mean that schools will now be more prepared for this possibility. Also, pupils will be better prepared for remote learning, and although there are still shortages, there is a better provision of hardware and necessary online connections.

Rather different viewpoints

While school leaders and their professional associations favour a cautious and measured approach towards the road to recovery, the Department for Education (DfE) seems to be determined that everything will immediately return to the way things were in pre-pandemic times.

It would be fair to say that there is a degree of horror among professionals at the demands of the DfE, many believing that it will be hard to return to normal, because at present there is no normality.

The pandemic has been a highly traumatic experience for most school communities, and this has not vanished overnight. The effects of the shock continue to be felt and clearly the consequent disruption to education is far from over.

The demands of the pandemic have been relentless, and there is a strong feeling that as we move into a new school year these challenges will continue. It is felt that these can best be met by focusing on and providing the vital support that is needed by pupils. Unnecessary distractions will only get in the way as schools struggle to get on with the job.

Accountability returns

The DfE is keen to reimpose the accountability system that existed prior to the pandemic, but many feel that this will be unhelpful and will potentially hamper the work of schools at this crucial time. The Educational Policy Institute strongly supported the view that in 2021/2022 the education inspection framework should remain suspended, and Ofsted should refrain from a ‘business as usual approach’.

However, Ofsted has announced that routine inspections will resume at the start of the autumn term, and these can take place within five days of its start. The example given by Ofsted is that if term starts on a Wednesday, the inspection can begin on the Wednesday of the following week.

This contrasts with Wales, where the Welsh government has announced that in order to reduce administrative burdens on schools and allow teachers to focus on pupils impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, Ofsted’s Welsh equivalent, Estyn, is to suspend inspections for the autumn term.

In all fairness Ofsted acknowledges that the Covid-19 pandemic may be continuing to cause disruption in schools and this will be taken into consideration when making judgements. “The lead inspector will seek to understand the specific impact that Covid-19 has had on the school community and how the school’s leaders responded to the situation.”

Meanwhile the NAHT suggested that while Ofsted should continue to carry out inspections when serious issues such as safeguarding had been raised, its primarily focus should be to support schools as they recover from the disruption caused by the pandemic. It could make a major contribution to recovery by identifying and sharing best practice in schools.

Concerns about early years education

There is a general feeling that before there is any question of returning to the ‘old way’, several important issues should be prioritised.

One important concern is that of the youngest children. According to the Sutton Trust, 52% of parents of children aged between two and four felt that their child’s social and emotional development had been negatively affected by the pandemic. The reduction of opportunities to play, interact and socialise with other children potentially has serious effects on their future achievements in school and in later adult life. Professionals place investment in early years at the heart of any educational recovery plan.

The return of testing

In June 2021, the Secretary of State confirmed that the Government was planning for a full programme of primary assessments in the coming academic year, including statutory baseline assessment and the multiplication check.

Due to the pandemic, Year 1 pupils did not take the phonics screening check in June 2021. As a result, a statutory requirement has been made for those children who are now in Year 2 to take the test at the beginning of the second half of the autumn term. Children who fail to meet the standard will be expected to take the statutory check in June 2022 alongside Year 1 pupils.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, is reported to have said that his association considered that the administration of the autumn phonics check was of zero academic value and at a challenging time was a completely unnecessary bureaucratic burden on schools.

This next academic year will see the resumption of standardised assessments for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 pupils, otherwise known as SATs. Two years have gone by without any Key Stage 2 SATs taking place.

Since their introduction in 1991 there have always been mixed feelings about SATs. Some educational professionals regard them as irrelevant, while others feel that they force headteachers to pick between achievement and inclusion. Others feel that they simply do not work in their current form and that they should be replaced with an externally moderated portfolio of work.

In the view of many teachers, the tests themselves are not the problem. The concerns that have been expressed relate to the way the tests are administered and how the results are published in the form of national league tables. It is felt that this creates unnecessary pressure on both the schools and the children. A suggested alternative would be for the children to sit the SATs, with the results simply being reported to government and then used to inform teacher judgement.

GCSE and A-levels to return

During the middle of the summer term of 2022, students will sit GCSE and A-level exams, as was the practice before the pandemic, but the order of exams will be slightly different from previous years. Later in the year the Joint Council for Qualifications will be consulting with schools on a range of issues, such as whether advance information should be provided on the content of exam questions for the majority of GCSE and A-level subjects.

The DfE and Ofqual are also consulting with teachers, parents and students, seeking opinions on proposals to change exam and assessment requirements, the exam timetable, and contingency plans for exams in summer 2022 in the event of possible further lockdowns. The consultation document can be found here.

And finally …

Although the next academic year will be full of unknowns, one thing is certain. As things currently stand, as far as possible, inspections and examinations are destined to return to the way they were in pre-pandemic times. It remains to be seen how successful this strategy will be in helping schools as they journey on the road to recovery.

In summary

  • School leaders will be anxious to return to normality as soon as possible, mostly favouring a cautious and measured approach, while DfE is anxious to return to the situation that existed in pre-pandemic times.

  • Ofsted inspections will resume in England, but Ofsted’s Welsh equivalent, Estyn, has suspended inspections at least for the autumn.

  • Support for early years education should be a priority.

  • Testing and external examinations will resume.

  • Government contingency planning will be necessary in the event of a future lockdown.

  • Will government strategy help schools as they journey on the road to recovery?