The head of the Ofsted schools inspectorate has said England risks a repeat of cases such as Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, the six-year-old abused and murdered in his own home last year, if schools and social services are disrupted by future lockdowns.
Asked if further school closures could result in similar cases, Amanda Spielman said: “Yes, schools closing clearly has had some significant risks for children around the reduction in quality of education but we know that there is a minority of children who sadly are safer in school than out of it.
“And we have to recognise that by closing schools we make that minority less safe.”
The chief inspector of schools also criticised the “hokey-cokey education” that children have endured during the pandemic, saying that nearly every child in England suffered as a result, including vulnerable children who “disappeared from teachers’ line of sight”.
Launching Ofsted’s annual report for 2020-21, Spielman wrote: “Almost all children felt the impact of Covid-19 and the resulting restrictions to some extent. Many of the youngest children had their development and progress hampered, with some even regressing … In primary and secondary schools, children struggled with a hokey-cokey education: in the classroom, at home, separated in bubbles, isolating alone.”
Ofsted’s report claims that the loss of education, disrupted routine, and lack of activities “led some children to develop physical and mental health problems. Loneliness, boredom and misery became endemic among the young.”
It found that pressures on council care placements have grown during the pandemic, with long waiting lists and children being placed far from their families or in unregistered homes, as some children “became involved in criminal activity, including gang violence, and were at risk of child sexual exploitation”.
Spielman would not be drawn on the number of children who have been made more vulnerable by the pandemic lockdowns, or on the length of time that will be needed for the education system in England to repair the damage.
“In various surveys and testing programmes that have been done so far we’ve seen some encouraging signs. But I think we’ve also seen that it’s the children at the lower end of the spectrum, the ones who are the lower achievers, are the ones who’ve learned least through periods of remote learning and enclosed schools.
“So it’s it’s very important that we stay very clearly focused on the ones who will need help, and who won’t simply recover through schools doing what they always do so well,” Spielman said.
She said the suspension of Ofsted’s inspection visits for long periods since March 2020 had hampered its ability to investigate the workings of educational settings, including within prisons, or other social care.
Prisoners were found to be unable to leave their cells to learn or take part in classes. “Many lost motivation and floundered, especially those with learning difficulties, low levels of education or limited English,” the report states.
In response to criticism that Ofsted’s inspections are disrupting schools still affected by Covid, Spielman said the inspectors were sympathetic and that more than three-quarters of schools’ requests for an inspection deferral have been granted, especially at those with high levels of staff absence.
Post-visit surveys collected by Ofsted found that 90% of schools said that the inspection would help them to improve, while complaints were running at levels similar to pre-pandemic inspections.
“All the feedback that we collect says that our aim this term, to make sure that we genuinely take account of the Covid challenges for school, are landing about where they should,” Spielman said.
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said Ofsted needed to recognise that inspections remained disruptive for many schools. “We have asked the inspectorate to allow inspections to be deferred upon request to a later date, and while it has slightly softened its criteria for deferrals, it has not gone far enough in this respect,” Barton said.