Schools that prioritised distributing food parcels to poorer children in the early stages of the pandemic may not have focused on ensuring all pupils received an education, England’s chief schools inspector has said.
Amanda Spielman said the attention of many schools went “very rapidly to the most disadvantaged children” when schools were not fully open to pupils.
Speaking at an Institute for Government (IfG) event, the Ofsted chief said the attention given to children with greatest difficulties amid the pandemic was “admirable”, but it meant some schools “didn’t have the capacity left” to ensure all pupils had access to remote education.
Asked about disparities in attainment between different types of schools during the pandemic, Ms Spielman played down the argument that private schools benefited significantly from the adoption of teacher-assessed grades rather than exams, compared with state schools.
But addressing the disparities in what remote learning was offered, she said: “There is an unevenness in resource which I think we have to acknowledge.
“The average private school has three times as much money so far more staff, far more technology to mobilise to switch to teaching remotely, so I don’t think we should lose sight of that entirely. But that doesn’t explain the disparities that we saw in the state sector.
“Another thing I saw was that in a lot of schools, it felt as though their attention went very rapidly to the most disadvantaged children, into making food parcels, going out visiting.
“They put a great deal of attention into the children with greatest difficulties, which is admirable, but in some cases that probably got prioritised… certainly last summer… which may have meant that they didn’t have the capacity left to make sure that there was some kind of education offer for all children.
“I think in those first few weeks when it looked as though it might just be sort of three or four weeks, it was less obvious to some that they really did need to start assembling a full remote education offering.”
But on Tuesday, Dame Christine Ryan, chair of Ofsted, faced questions from MPs about the watchdog’s role in overseeing schools’ efforts to provide quality remote education for all children during the pandemic.
Tory MP Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Committee, said: “It seems to me that Ofsted was virtually invisible in terms of, particularly in the first lockdown, in making clear what kind of standards of remote learning there should be, and how it should be done, and that you just vacated the field.
“The evidence is there in terms of the lost learning of pupils and the very, very patchy remote learning from school to school.”
Mr Halfon added: “There is a view that during the pandemic Ofsted was a bit like the hedgehog at the back of my garden, in semi-hibernation.”
But Dame Christine rejected the criticism as she said: “I don’t agree with the sort of picture that it’s gone into hibernation.”
“It may not have been big and showy but it did lots of work behind the scenes,” she added.
During the IfG’s event, Ms Spielman was asked for her thoughts on suggestions that school time should be extended to help children catch up.
She said: “Enlarging the school day can certainly make sense provided it’s not just a bit of extra time that somebody else pastes on.
“That it’s properly integrated into the curriculum, that it genuinely helps children do better in each of their classes and provides the time for the enrichment.”
Asked whether school holidays should be shortened, she added: “There is potentially scope for thinking about increasing the school year.”
But she highlighted that the six-week summer holiday in England is already “pretty short by international standards”.
“If we’re going to capture some more time, I suspect most parents would prefer to see less holiday at some of the times of year it’s hard to keep children occupied and to do nice things outside, than to shorten the summer still further.”
In June, education recovery commissioner Sir Kevan Collins quit with a condemnation of the Government’s £1.4 billion catch-up fund, which he said fell “far short” of what was needed.
He had recommended that schools be funded for a flexible extension to school time – the equivalent of 30 minutes extra every day.
But the Government’s announcement did not include plans to lengthen the school day or shorten the summer break.
The Department for Education said at the time that the findings of a review of time spent in school would inform the spending review.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “From the very start of the crisis, staff looked after the most vulnerable pupils as the country went into lockdown; they effectively reimagined the very concept of ‘school’ as they worked to implement a remote learning offer.
“There is no doubt that this vital work helped to shield large numbers of children from the worst effects of the pandemic.
“The solutions offered by central government almost always arrived long after schools had worked things out for themselves. Schools learned much more quickly than policy-makers about what worked and what pupils needed.”