The chief inspector of schools in England has said the attainment gap between deprived pupils and their wealthier peers will widen as a result of school closures and it is in children’s interests to get back to school as quickly as possible.
Amanda Spielman, who heads the schools inspectorate Ofsted, said the Covid-19 pandemic would further disadvantage the poorest, lowest-achieving and least motivated children. “Whether we like it or not, it is going to widen gaps, especially in the short term,” she said.
Giving evidence to the cross-party education select committee on Monday, Spielman was questioned about a wide range of issues in addition to school closures, including relationships and sex education, illegal schools and Ofsted’s approach to faith schools.
At one point she clashed with the Tory chair of the committee, Robert Halfon, when he appeared to defend a state-funded Jewish faith school where Ofsted inspectors found that information about Elizabeth I had been redacted from school books.
Halfon said the Yesodey Hatorah senior girls’ school, serving the Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Stamford Hill, north London, denied allegations that teaching materials were censored and that women including Elizabeth I were airbrushed out of history, and he suggested reopening a dialogue with the school.
Spielman stood by the Ofsted report, however, and said it was not just a case of a single image of Elizabeth I being censored because it was immodest, as the school had claimed, but that “an entire chunk of history” had been taken out. The school was judged “inadequate” following the inspection in March 2018.
MPs on the committee were in the main keen to explore the impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils, about whom concerns have been growing since schools closed five weeks ago.
Figures published by the Department for Education last week showed that just 5% of vulnerable children entitled to a place in temporary emergency schools were turning up.
Spielman told the committee she was “seriously concerned” about the impact of school closures on the most disadvantaged children. Asked about the closure of alternative provision for children who have struggled in mainstream schools, she said: “The longer the closure, or almost closure, the greater the problems for those children.”
She continued: “We know that home and online learning are very imperfect substitutes for the school experience. We know that children are losing education. It is not just children who are disadvantaged or academically behind, it is children without motivation. So it is in children’s interests to get back into school as soon as possible.”
Halfon also challenged Spielman on what Ofsted would do to ensure vulnerable children get the education and support they need to catch up. “My concern, from what you have said so far, is that there doesn’t seem [to be] from Ofsted a special focus on the left-behind children … and a special effort to make sure they catch up when schools reopen,” he said.
Spielman said Ofsted’s inspection framework already focused on children who face the greatest difficulties in their education.
She also told MPs she did not expect Ofsted to resume full routine inspections before the end of the summer term. They were suspended in March as a result of the pandemic.
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