Exclusive: Coronavirus challenges persuade Ofsted to call off inspection at Oldham college

Oldham Sixth Form College is the first education provider to successfully defer an inspection due to the Coronavirus outbreak, Ofsted has confirmed.

Inspectors were due into the college this week but the visit has now been postponed to an unknown date.

Principal Jayne Clarke said: “We are pleased that Ofsted has agreed to defer our inspection.

“In common with colleges and schools across the country, we are focused on dealing with the threat posed by coronavirus and it would not be appropriate to conduct an inspection in such unprecedented circumstances.”

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, told FE Week that Ofsted “has made the right call”.

“Although colleges remain open, this is not business as usual,” he said.

“Our members are more than usually pre-occupied with ensuring young people are safe and are dealing with a number of unknowns due to coronavirus.

“The deferment policy is welcome, but we believe that all inspections should be suspended during this extraordinary period.”

A spokesperson for the University and College Union also said this was the “right decision” and added that all inspections “should be delayed”.

The news comes as leadership unions prepare to meet ministers for coronavirus crunch talks today, which will decide next steps for education providers.

On Friday, Ofsted released new guidance stating that it will talk to principals and chief executives before inspections to work out if the impact of coronavirus warrants a deferral.

The advice said the impact of the disease could be considered an “exceptional circumstance” warranting a postponement.

On Saturday, the watchdog’s national director of education, Sean Harford, told the Association of School and Colleges Leaders’ conference that the chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, will personally sign off any decision not to defer inspections of providers affected by coronavirus.

The leader of the ASCL, Geoff Barton, has since joined calls for the government to immediately suspend Ofsted inspections.

Ofsted’s guidance explained that the spread of the virus “presents serious challenges for providers that are affected”.

“In line with the potential for this to be an ‘exceptional circumstance’, we will carry out a risk-assessment with the providers when we announce the inspection. This will give the leaders/managers of providers the opportunity to inform Ofsted about any current coronavirus impact on their provision.

“Using this information, we will make an assessment and a deferral decision, as appropriate. When inspections go ahead, inspectors will be sensitive to increases in user absence or absence of key staff, and will reflect this in the inspection report.”

Ofsted has also issued new guidance to its inspectors, stating that the “first point” of discussion for lead inspectors when they phone education providers about future visits will be the “current and potential impact of coronavirus on the operations of the provider”.